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Rabbit Is Rich: Will Smith's etching, 'Bunny Sarcophagus,' looks better than it tastes.

Chasing the Rabbit

Cacao, bunnies and resurrection: what's the connection?

By Sara Bir

Chocolate comes from cacao trees. Not a lot of people know that. It's common to think of chocolate as something that comes from Hershey, Pa., or the Godiva boutique at the mall. But no, chocolate finds its true source in the equatorial rainforest, where pods grow from the trunks of cacao trees and are harvested and processed by hand to yield cacao beans.

Cacao trees originated in the Amazon basin and gradually spread up to Central America, and for thousands of years, the only people to enjoy cacao were the pre-Columbian civilizations who made their homes there. To the Aztecs, the Maya and the Olmec, cacao was a sacred thing.

Easter, meanwhile, comes vaguely from something to do with Jesus. At least that's what many people who passively celebrate Easter think. After traipsing through the library, however, a hapless amateur historian soon discovers that the artifacts of what we commonly know as Easter--colorful eggs, pure-white lilies, sugary jelly beans, brand-new bonnets, controversial Mel Gibson movies--are in fact a train wreck of forgotten rites of rebirth. When you get right down to it, Easter is just another commercially corrupted holiday.

And somewhere along the line, Easter and chocolate became inextricably intertwined. I have become acutely aware of this because I work in a chocolate factory, and it's now the time of year when the sugar-mad masses come poking around in search of cute little chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies to plant inside the green plastic grass of their kids' Easter baskets.

"Last year," a co-worker confided, "we got so sick of people grabbing at the huge chocolate rabbit on display that after Easter Sunday, we took the rabbit outside and ceremonially sacrificed it by beating it with a stick."

Argh! Another tradition to throw a wrench into the randomly constructed gears of the Easter machine. Even finding one true origin of Easter is a disenchanting nightmare. While some sources maintain that Easter is a lunar celebration (the word "Easter" is thought to be derived from the Saxon Eostre or Ostara, goddess of the moon), others claim that it's a solar gig, that "Easter" refers to the sun riding in the east--Ostara is also the goddess of the dawn.

In any case, Easter was a pagan celebration until it got injected with a little Jesus power via second-century Christian missionaries, who encouraged Saxon tribes to carry on with their feasts in a Christian manner, and handily timed the Christian observance of the Resurrection of Christ for the same part of the year.

As a child in Sunday School, I was taught that Easter is the most important event in the Christian year, that the Resurrection of Christ was the strongest defining feature of our faith. So I asked my Sunday School teacher what fluffy bunnies and baby chicks had to do with it, because to me, those were the most exciting things about Easter.

The baby chicks and eggs my teacher had a pretty decent explanation for ("Because Easter celebrates Jesus' rising, we look to eggs and baby chicks as symbols of new life--just like Jesus!"), but she wasn't very convincing about the bunny part. "Easter is in the spring, and bunnies come out in the spring after a long, hard winter to a better, warmer life."

Yeah, sure--and so do skunks and rats.

What she didn't mention is that rabbits are some of the most goddamn fertile creatures on the planet, and thus an excellent symbol of new life, since they often seem to be fabricating it. Rabbits do have strong mythological ties with the moon, and the goddess Ostara's earthly sidekick was a rabbit. Supposedly, German immigrants introduced the rabbit to American Easter folklore.

Oschter Haws was kind of the German bunny equivalent to Christ-Kindel; children were told that if they were good, Oschter Haws would lay them a nest of colored eggs. Here in America, Easter was not that big of a secular to-do until after the Civil War--when, coincidentally, industry made chocolate readily available to the masses. Hmm.

Consider the timeline of chocolate for a moment. For a good few millennia, chocolate was consumed almost exclusively as a beverage. And up until the mid-16th century, cacao was virtually unknown to the Old World. Just as in the pre-Columbian Americas--where only the nobility and the merchants had access to costly cacao--the privilege of enjoying chocolate was available only to the European upper classes.

Chocolate required a great deal of labor to prepare: the beans had to be roasted, ground by hand over a heated stone, mixed into a paste, cooked gently, skimmed of cocoa butter and then painstakingly frothed to a pleasing foamy texture. It was hardly as simple as dissolving a packet of Swiss Miss into mug of boiling water.

Chocolate in ready-to-eat solid form did not appear on a large scale until the mid-1800s (thanks largely to advances made by the English firm of J. S. Fry and Sons), and solid chocolate that was velvety smooth in texture didn't come along until 1879, when the Swiss manufacturer Rodolphe Lindt developed a refining process called conching.

Chocolate rabbits didn't arrive on the scene until conching was perfected, but in true rabbit fashion, they soon began popping up everywhere. German tinsmith Friedrich Anton Reiche established a chocolate and ice cream mold factory in 1870 that grew to become the world's largest, exporting highly detailed metal molds--many of them in rabbit forms--to confectioners in America and elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, in France, they not only have Easter rabbits, but Easter bells. I found out about this from reading David Sedaris' book Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris writes of encountering this tradition while in France, floundering ineptly through language classes with a surly professeure who takes issue with Sedaris' assertion during a class discussion that the Easter Rabbit brings chocolate in a basket.

"The teacher sighed and shook her head," he writes. "As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything that was wrong with my country. 'No, no,' she said. 'Here in France the chocolate is brought in by a big bell that flies in from Rome.'"

The flying bell--cloche volant--comes from an old French Catholic tradition holding that on Good Friday all of the church bells in France take off and fly over to the Vatican in Rome, hauling with them all of the misery and grief of those who mourn Jesus' crucifixion. Then the bells fly back to France on Easter morning, and in place of the misery and grief, they carry lots and lots of chocolate in the shape of rabbits, eggs and . . . bells!

At least a chocolate rabbit is anthro-pomorphic; it's cute with its little bunny head and ears, which of course you bite off first. A bell offers no such delights. What do you bite off first on a cloche volant? The clapper? The grief and misery?

Sadly, chocolate has as little to do with rabbits as it does with bells. At least bunnies and bells have been linked with Easter for hundreds of years. But chocolate and Easter's connection is completely a product of clever modern-day marketing. The one thing I grew up looking forward to more then any other on Easter morning--that big-ass solid chocolate rabbit to gnaw on bit by bit while watching television over the following few days--is ultimately as historically related to Easter as Hallmark is to Valentine's Day.

Maybe gathered around some other-worldly fire under a full spring moon, Quetzalcoatl, Peter Cottontail, Jesus and Ostara are sipping some long-lost ceremonial Meso-American cacao beverage, looking at our mess of a world and laughing heartily as we wait for life to begin anew in spring, all fertile and resurrected and full of promise and flying bells.

As for myself, I will be at work, joyously partaking in a new Easter tradition: the destruction of a chocolate rabbit with a stick.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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