It’s always around this time of year that I see memes and news stories circulating about the belief (and it’s a totally false belief) that chocolate manufacturers in the UK have removed the word Easter from their chocolate egg packaging in order to encourage sales to Muslims, or as part of a wider conspiracy to marginalise Christianity, or because something involving foreigners is changing the way we celebrate Easter in Britain.
It’s a strange co-incidence that not only am I the one person in Britain with enough knowledge of the UK’s chocolate archives to be able to prove this wrong, but I also have a theological qualification, and was even born (so my mother tells me) when my parents were living in the vestry of the church where my father was working as the church minister at the time. I was almost literally born in the church, so I’m hoping that I’m the perfect person to put this myth to bed once and for all.
I should mention that I wrote a very similar blog post to this one for the Nestlé website a couple of years ago, but since the archive closed down, so did the history pages on the website; this is really a re-hash of the same article, but here goes.
Eating chocolate is not as old as Easter; I think we can all agree on that point. The feast of Easter has been celebrated by Christian’s for almost two thousand years, but Europeans have only been eating chocolate for a few hundred years. Even then chocolate has only been widely available to the masses for around a hundred years and chocolate eggs are a relatively recent addition to the festival.
Fry’s of Bristol claim to have made the first chocolate Easter egg in the 1870s, and although it’s possible that other chocolate artisans were making them on a small scale elsewhere I haven’t seen any evidence to prove an earlier date than 1873. However (and this is the surprising fact), before the First World War chocolate eggs were not the most popular way to celebrate the festival; chocolate cockerels, chocolate shoes, chocolate fish, and chocolate hares were all just as popular. And these weren’t cute hares and happy fish, these were grimly realistic looking things. Our ancestors had some different attitudes to Easter.
I’ve talked before about why these objects might have symbolised Easter in a bygone age. Firstly the chocolate industry in the UK was dominated by three Quaker families for over a hundred years and they shaped our attitudes to chocolate. Quakers encouraged literacy and personal study of the Bible so we can be reasonably sure that Fry’s, Cadbury’s, and Rowntree’s would have known that a cockerel plays an important part in the Easter story (Christ prophesies that something will happen before the cock crows three times, and his prophecy comes to pass). They’d also have known that fish are tied up with the Easter story in multiple ways: the fish is a traditional symbol of the Christian faith; Christ’s disciples were fishermen; Christ told them he would teach them to be “fishers of men”; Christ performed multiple miracles involving fish; and when Christ returned from the dead he made his disciples a breakfast of cooked fish beside the sea of Galilee. A chocolate fish is an obvious choice for Easter.
Shoes are a less obvious choice, and their origins are more obscure. There is anecdotal evidence than in some parts of the UK it’s traditional for children to have new clothes, new shoes, or ‘Easter Bonnets’ in time for the Sunday church service. The chocolate shoes appear to have been secular, and the hares have been linked by other speculative historians with earlier pagan celebrations around the same time of year.
There is no link at all with chocolate and the Christian story of Easter as told in the gospels, not least because the cocoa bean was restricted to a continent which at that time totally unknown to the writers of the Bible. However thanks in part to Joanne Harris’ book Chocolat (and the film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) an idea has grown up that it is proper to give up chocolate as part of the Lenten fast.
In the Christian church there is a strong tradition of fasting for the 40 days before Good Friday as a time of spiritual preparation for Eastertide. Historically, Christians would use up their rich fatty foods on Shrove Tuesday and abstain from indulging for Lent. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that chocolate has always been seen as an indulgence; the first ruling on chocolate from the Vatican was the it could be drunk after mass during fasting.
Eggs, it is assumed by many, are the archetypal symbols of the Christian Easter festival; some even go as far as to say that they symbolised the stone which was rolled away from Christ’s tomb, or that they symbolise the new life he brings adherents to the Christian faith. There is very little evidence for this point of view. Eggs don’t feature in the Easter story told in the Bible, and some scholars (including the Venerable Bede, the 7th century British Christian historian) believe that the decoration of eggs at this time of year doesn’t derive from Christian tradition at all.
Spring is the time of year when hens began to lay eggs again (in modern farming they can be bred to lay all year round with artificial light, but this hasn’t always been the case and even in the 21st century many hens will stop laying during shorter hours of daylight) and so they were symbolic of the time of year and may have been incorporated into the celebrations because of the season that Easter falls in Europe.
It wasn’t until after the First World War that the popularity of the chocolate fish, shoes and cockerels began to wane, numbers of chocolate eggs increased, and the hare evolved into the (cuter) Easter Bunny.
While researching the history of chocolate I’ve looked at thousands of records relating to British Easter products down the decades and handed many of them over to the newspapers to be published. It should be noted, given recent media coverage, that most of them don’t refer to Easter explicitly on the packaging. In fact, if you take a look at the Rowntree’s sales catalogue from 1914 you’ll see that none of the eggs are called Easter eggs; the only mention of Easter is on the cover of the catalogue (and that would have only been seen by shopkeepers) and on a small label that says “Easter Novelties” and appears on three of the eggs and two of the novelties out of a catalogue of 65 items.
Eggs are not the only seasonal products in the Rowntree archive; I saw examples of Easter-themed Dairy Box and Black Magic boxes; selection boxes for Christmas; chocolate ornaments for the Christmas tree; and even chocolate chicks. However, more often than not they didn’t mention Christmas or Easter on the packaging and, of course, because these products were made and sold especially for the seasonal period it was clear to people what they were celebrating. Easter eggs remain a much-loved tradition during Eastertide in the UK and manufacturers continue to make them with pride, as they’ve always done, but when you’re enjoying your chocolate egg this year, spare a thought for the chocolate fish and the chocolate cockerels that have been consigned to history.