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Spanish and Native American cultures have long celebrated Christmas with chocolate

Chocolate was an important part of daily life in the California missions. In San Juan Capistrano, the Mission Store carries several brands of chocolate, including Taza, a Massachusetts-based company that makes chocolate using old fashioned methods. Photo by Brian Park
Chocolate was an important part of daily life in the California missions. In San Juan Capistrano, the Mission Store carries several brands of chocolate, including Taza, a Massachusetts-based company that makes chocolate using old fashioned methods. Photo by Brian Park

By Jan Siegel

As we get ready to celebrate the Christmas season, it is important to remember that in the Spanish and Mexican cultures, the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath and the punch bowl were not part of the early traditions. What was important, however, was chocolate.

The Mayans and the Aztecs used chocolate in their religious observances. When the Spanish missionaries came to the New World, they were already aware of the power of chocolate within the native populations. The missionaries found chocolate enjoyable, and so it was a natural culmination to include chocolate in services in order to attract the native people.

Even today, it is normal in the Native American community that after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, in the crèches in the family homes, that the baby Jesus be given a cup of hot chocolate.

Perhaps the person most influential in bringing chocolate into California was Fr. Junípero Serra.

When leaving Spain for the New World, Fr. Serra packed chocolate, which had been available in Europe, since it was discovered by early explorers in Latin America, more than 100 years before his birth. In her book, On the Chocolate Trail, Deborah Prinz wrote that when Serra arrived in Mexico City, he “created a set of administrative guidelines for the College of San Fernando, which included chocolate usage and concerns. His rules cautioned against giving women chocolate at any of the meals in the convent, perhaps to avoid possibilities of seduction or tempting distractions … Later, during a terrible cold spell, while founding the second mission at the Monterey Presidio, Father Serra noted ‘chocolate that, thanks God, we were not lacking up to now.’”

Serra carried chocolate with him while tending to the sick and also used it to motivate hard work. Chocolate was part of the welcoming mission hospitality. “Some 44 of Father Serra’s many letters mention chocolate, indicating its importance in the daily life of the missions,” Prinz wrote.

In the list of objects, materials and foodstuffs which were shipped to Alta California in 1769 by land and sea were 576 pounds of chocolate and 11 pounds of pinole, an aromatic powder used in the making of chocolate. In 1771, another shipment for the missions included 224 pounds of chocolate. In 1773, Fr. Serra requested that the port of San Blas remain open to ship cargo to Alta California “not only for corn but for chocolate loads.”

In Fr. Serra’s time, chocolate was stone ground. Today, you can spend a Moment in Time and experience the same kind of chocolate enjoyed by Serra by purchasing a Taza chocolate bar from the Mission Store. Taza, a Massachusetts company, prides itself on making chocolate the old fashioned way.

Whether you toast the holiday season with a glass of wine or a cup of hot chocolate, remember the man who brought both drinks to California.

Happy holidays and a happy New Year to all.

Jan Siegel is a 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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