By Sarah Fiorello

Today, many of us will be expressing love by giving cards, flowers, and—most popular according to consumer sales—chocolates.

Have you thought about when and why chocolate became part of Valentine’s Day traditions?

Broken chocolate bar and spices on wooden table. Selective focus
The word “chocolate” comes from the Classical Nahuatl word xocolātl, meaning bitter (xoco) water (atl), and entered the English language via the Spanish “chocolate”.

The Origins of Chocolate

Chocolate has been associated with romance and luxury for centuries. Around 1500 BCE, the Olmecs of southern Mexico were the first known cultural group to consume chocolate. The seed of the cacao tree was made into chocolate by fermenting, roasting, and grinding them into a paste used to make a cold, unsweetened beverage often flavored with vanilla or chili pepper. As early as 1200 BCE, drinking the chocolate beverage was part of the ritual to seal marriages, one of the few food crops included in a marriage ceremony.

A foaming cup of chocolate seals a marriage in this Mixtec wedding.

Food of the Gods

In many parts of historic Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and central America), offerings of cacao pods, beans, and chocolate drinks were included in rituals to communicate with and appease ancient gods. Chocolate was part of rituals encouraging favorable weather and bountiful crops, as well as ceremonies centered around fertility, birth, marriage, and death. 
By 900 BCE, an extensive network of trade routes developed across Mesoamerica, which fostered the rise of a wealthy and influential merchant class. Large amounts of cacao beans were purchased by affluent elites and rulers. Cacao beans were also used as currency to pay for other items.

Cacao tree and pods
Cocoa comes from seed pods that grow on cacao trees (Theobroma  cacao). Theobroma means “food of the gods” in Greek.

Chocolate Travels to Spain

It wasn’t until the 1500’s that chocolate was first brought to Europe. It is thought that Spanish explorer Hernán Cortéz brought cacao beans from Mexico to Spain in 1528. Other research points to chocolate’s first arrival to Spain in 1544 by Dominican Friars. The year 1585 marked the first recorded large-scale shipment of cacao beans from Mexico to Spain. Initially, chocolate was made into a hot, water-based drink that was sweetened with sugar and spices, such as cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, and cloves.

European Innovations

While the harvesting and preparation of cacao beans has remained relatively unchanged throughout history, inventions in Europe beginning in the 1800s transformed how chocolate was processed and eaten.
1828: In the Netherlands, cocoa power was first treated with alkaline salts, producing a milder flavor, darker color, and the ability to dissolve easier in liquids.
1847: In England, the first modern chocolate bar was created by mixing extra cocoa butter back into the Dutch cocoa powder and sugar.
1875: In Switzerland, a conche machine was invented to process chocolate into a smooth consistency.

process of conching and refining chocolate in artisan small machine
The original conche machine was shaped like a seashell or ‘conche’ in French

1861: Beginning of a New Valentine’s Day Tradition

In England, Richard Cadbury, son of Cadbury founder John Cadbury, was the first to package and sell chocolates in heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s Day in 1861. The boxes were ornately decorated with Cupids, hearts, and roses. Chocolate companies in the United States including Hershey and Russell Stover began using heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day in the 1900s.

Heart shaped box with delicious chocolate candies on red background, top view

Today, chocolate gifts continue as an expression of love and appreciation on Valentine’s Day—Americans spend more than $1 billion on chocolate candy in the month of February, including more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

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