The holidays, in chocolate

First, I must thank the resourceful Chris, a man whom I have never met, but who nonetheless appeared on the other end of my phone line today offering a brilliant blog prompt: holiday chocolates around the world. I liked the idea so much that I might even use it every week from now till New Year. I mean, there are 196 countries in the world (including Taiwan), which means there is a great deal of potential for holiday nationalism around chocolate. Plus, it sounded fun.

I ought first to address the more sober parts of such an exercise, before leaping into holiday sweets. While almost two hundred different national traditions around holiday chocolate are theoretically possible, in reality far fewer countries make a celebration of it at this time of year. The obvious first reason is that the current season is mainly Jewish and Christian holidays. The predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Confucian, Jain, Sikh, Tao, or Zoroastrian places of the world are not likely experiencing a holiday-related chocolate rush right now. For most of those religions, the great celebratory festivals have passed already this year. Although, of course, many people around the world have adopted secular Christmas traditions, and so could be upping their chocolate shopping nonetheless.

The other limiting factor in any global chocolate holiday search is that the world is pretty much divided between places where cocoa grows and places where chocolate gets made and sold, at least in the shiny bar form that predominates at this time of year. As I frequently write about and teach in my classes, cocoa farmers are among those least able to enjoy chocolate. In my research in West Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa grows, I did find a celebratory aspect to sharing chocolate, including at Christmastime in the predominantly Christian regions. However, bar chocolate was widely unavailable in the rural areas. Where rural shops did carry them, chocolate bars (even small ones) were almost always too expensive for farmers to buy. Most expressed to me that they saved such luxury purchases only for very special occasions, if they made them at all.

So with those serious caveats in mind, taking care not to lump all the people of the world into chocolate-loving Judeo-Christians with disposable holiday income, let’s look at a few chocolate traditions that do exist at this festive time.

We can start with Chris, who is British. While I can offer no further description of Chris, having never laid eyes on him, his tender recollections of his best holiday chocolate—Quality Street—matched my own memories from several years living in the UK. The British do, as I recall, prize this purple tin of chocolates and toffees, made by Nestlé. The candies come wrapped in garish colors, and everyone has their special favorite (well, their favourite, I suppose). In my student days, people would grab for the Quality Street tin when one was produced at a holiday party, anxious to procure their picks before anyone else could take them.

Quality Street chocolates

I pressed the disembodied voice of Chris about another UK memory of mine: Terry’s Chocolate Orange. He agreed that this, too, was a British holiday tradition, and that without a Chocolate Orange in one’s stocking toe, it would hardly be Christmas at all.

08 terrys

Terry’s Chocolate Orange is a thrilling experience, for which we have no equivalent in the US. On the outside, it’s a fist-sized sphere of chocolate, wrapped in bright foil that mimics (sort of) an orange peel. But the sphere is made up of segments, such as one would find inside a real orange. The thrill comes from opening it: traditionally, the Terry’s Chocolate Orange is placed upon a surface, then smartly thumped. This is delightful, I can imagine even more so to a child, because it breaks the sphere apart into its segments, each one flavored with orange. To be truthful, I can’t think of any combination that I like as little as chocolate and orange. But on the whole, I give the Terry’s Chocolate Orange Christmas tradition high marks for design and, frankly, the opportunity to smash something.

After reminiscing about his holiday chocolate memories, Chris asked me about my own. I thought this would be an easy question: holiday chocolate in the US, the largest chocolate consuming country in the world (by overall market value, anyway). Piece of cake. But the only thing I could come up with was Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in red and green foil, as one finds at this time of year, in addition to the usual silver.

08 holiday kisses

But that makes us seem very un-imaginative, when we are in fact a creative nation when it comes to chocolate. After the unknown Chris and I finished our call, other memories bubbled up, and I thought of chocolate coins. They have these in the UK too, but I remember them best from my childhood in New York: the thick luxury of the gold foil, the feeling of being rich, saving and counting my netted bag of coins as long as I could before eating them.

08 chocolate coins

Chocolate coins are a Christmas gift, but are also popular for Hannukah, perhaps even more so for that holiday. I remember getting them at school. Though strict in every other way, my Catholic grade school was rather fluid when it came to religion. We had regular Passover Seders in the cafeteria, complete with Matzoh Ball soup, and I remember receiving chocolate coins as a Hannukah present, probably from the nuns. As a child, of course, I didn’t think too much about religious fluidity; I was just happy to get cool chocolate. But now it makes me think that our faculty did right to give us a glimpse into ceremonies not our own, with chocolate as guide.

I have traveled pretty widely, and I like this theme (cheers again, Chris, whoever you are!). So next week, I will remember more holiday chocolates, and we’ll see how else this sweet makes for a festive time in places far or near.

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