When you think of Easter, whether you are Christian or not, the content in the image seen above is familiar.
Easter is a Christian religious holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but today it has also become a period of time where individuals eat specialized chocolate treats sold only during this time of year. One cannot think about Easter without thinking of chocolate eggs or chocolate bunnies stacking the shelves of supermarkets and drug stores similar to the image below.
With chocolate being such a strong component of the Christian holiday of Easter, it is difficult to believe that when chocolate was first discovered by Spain in the 16th century, the Catholic Church attempted to marginalize the new foodstuff because of their initial inability to classify it and determine its relationship with the ecclesiastical fast. Social, economic, and cultural factors help explain why the cacao crop was not completely destroyed and dictate why the relationship between chocolate and the Catholic Church is what it is today.
During the time of this debate, a fast was defined as withholding from ingesting any nourishment between midnight and Holy Communion, with the exception of drinking to allay thirst as long as the liquid did not provide any nourishment (5). Because cacao can be prepared in many different ways and take on both a solid and liquid form, the main question was whether or not chocolate was a liquid or a solid. If it were deemed a food or a solid, if one consumed chocolate during a period of fasting then one would be committing a mortal sin. The controversy was even more complex because of the numerous nutritional ingredients that can be added to chocolate, including maize. Mexican physician Juan de Cárdenas began the debate in Mexico in 1591 by interpreting the word “drink” in two different ways. He states that one way to think about the word is anything drinkable and therefore permitted to be consumed during the fast. But another way is to consider it a liquid that is intended to refresh and quench thirst. Cádenas concluded that chocolate in any form breaks the fast because the intention behind fasting is to deny the human body of food and nutrition (1). There were many other arguments put forward over time in order to settle this debate. Dominican friar Agust´ın Davila Padilla wrote in favor of consuming chocolate during the ecclesiastical fast. This ruling was favored among some members of the Church because it lessened the moral dilemma of taking chocolate (5). Later, around 1636, Spaniard Antonio de León Pinelo produced a book stating that the solution depended on the added ingredients. If chocolate were concocted with plain water, it was merely a drink and did not break the fast (5). Individuals continued to put forth arguments, which left some discontented and others pleased.
Factors contributing to the debate extend beyond religious ones due to chocolate’s strong social influence. The complexity of this argument and chocolate’s power is illustrated in the story of Bishop Don Bernardino de Salazar who, in 1625, with the backing of the Spanish government and the Catholic Church, prevented the consumption of chocolate during the celebration of mass. He argued that the consumption during mass was not only distracting but also drew attention away from worshipping and praising God properly (5). The peninsulares, Spanish Catholic women in Latin America, had their maids deliver them chocolate during mass. When the bishop threatened excommunication, they simply chose to attend their neighborhood cathedrals instead of giving up taking chocolate during mass. Soon after, the bishop passed away after consuming chocolate himself. Because it is so well known that chocolate is a great vessel to deliver poison, it is rumored that he was poisoned to death.
The economic value of cacao beans to Spain and the Catholic Church ensured that chocolate did not disappear as a result of this debate and was a strong attributing factor in the stance certain groups took on the matter. The Jesuits, a denomination of Christianity, supported that chocolate was a liquid and could not break any fast because of their own stakes in the cacao trade (3). In addition, the Spanish Crown used cacao beans as a commodity for taxation, and the Catholic Church profited from the forced labor and tribute of the native inhabitants that cultivated the cacao beans (5).
Furthermore, chocolate took on cultural significance in Spain. Chocolate was a luxury product that “became a ritual around which an entire consumer culture developed” (5). Special instruments and material objects like the ones seen in the image above and to the right lent a certain protocol to the act of “taking chocolate” (5), as the Spanish referred to it. The molinillo was vital in the preparation of the chocolate beverage, creating a strongly desired froth on the top. The mancerina, used to hold the chocolate beverage, exhibits chocolate’s status as an extravagant commodity .
After centuries of debating, the Catholic Church was forced to take a stance. In 1662 the Vatican ended the stalemate when Cardinal Francisco Maria Brancaccio declared that: “Beverages do not break the fast, since wine, being as it is so nutritious, does not break it. The same applies to cacao beverage” (2). In 1664 Italian Francesco Maria Brancaccio examined this decision stating that because fasting is not divine law, it is subject to change and should be changed to accommodate the fine chocolate beverage (2). Fortunately, consuming chocolate was deemed to not be a mortal sin nor break the ecclesiastical fast. Today when one thinks of fasting, one does not consider that chocolate was ever part of the discussion. Although chocolate and the Catholic Church used to be in conflict, they are now in a harmonious relationship. The Easter holiday is a time when chocolate sales peak. In 2015 $823 million in chocolate was bought the week before Easter (4). Without this holiday, special chocolate treats would not be sold in mass quantities, and without chocolate, many would not recognize Easter. It is because of chocolate’s initial social, economic, and cultural influence that it is still around today and exists in harmony with Christian holidays.
- Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
- De Orellana, Margarita, Clara Marín, Salvador Reyes Equiguas, Quentin Pope, Anahí Luna, Martha Few, Johanna Kufer, Nikolai Grube, Michael Heinrich, Michelle Suderman, Jorge Betanzos, Timothy Adès, José Luis Trueba Lara, Rafael Vargas, and Guadalupe Loaeza. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes De México, no. 110 (2013): 91. Accessed March 8, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.
- De Orellana, Margarita, Quentin Pope, Sonia Corcuera Mancera, José Luis Trueba Lara, Jana Schroeder, Laura Esquivel, Jill Derais, Mario Humberto Ruz, Clara Marín, Miguel León-Portilla, Michelle Suderman, Marta Turok, Mario M. Aliphat Fernández, Laura Caso Barrera, Sophie D. Coe, Michael D. Coe, and Pedro Pitarch. “CHOCOLATE II: Mysticism and Cultural Blends.” Artes De México, no. 105 (2012): 73-96. Accessed March 6, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/24319003.
- Fahey, Mark. “The Easter Bunny Is the King of Candy Sales.” CNBC. CNBC, March 24, 2016. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/24/easter-wins-the-candy-battle.html.
- Forrest, Beth Marie, and April L Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain.” Food and Foodways 15, no. 1-2 (2007): 34-43.