“Forget about fish and lambs; that doesn’t work here.” Jacques Dahan knows what he is talking about. The Frenchman eats chocolate every day, and has headed up the U.S. branch of the Normandy-based chocolatier Michel Cluizel since 2004. “Eggs and bunnies are the ultimate Easter chocolates in America. The symbols are more diverse in France, and many chocolates are sold with a little surprise. When you break open the egg, the hen, or the fish, there are other little chocolates inside. But that’s not how it works here.”
In an effort to satisfy French expats banned from traveling during the pandemic, and who are nostalgic for the cocottes garnies – filled hens – of their childhood, the brand is now offering a chicken whose outer shell (in dark or milk chocolate) hides an assortment of miniature eggs and bells. “We’ll tell our American customers about the tradition of the Easter hen and the bells, which are popular in France but almost unknown in the United States. We have previously tried to sell chocolate bells to the U.S. public, but they didn’t like it one bit!”
A Celebration Rooted in Paganism and Christianity
In ancient times, eggs would be gifted in the spring to herald the return of the warm weather. This symbol of life was adopted by Christianity, which associated it with the resurrection of Christ. Until the 17th century, the Church outlawed the consumption of eggs during Lent. Instead of being eaten, they were decorated and blessed on Easter Sunday. King Louis XIV then made the tradition an institution, and French painters Boucher and Watteau even produced a selection of painted eggs. A century later at the imperial court of Saint Petersburg, a descendent of French Huguenots transformed the humble Easter egg into a precious piece of jewelry. His name? Pierre-Karl Fabergé.
The first chocolate eggs made their appearance in the 19th century. Dutch chocolatier Coenraad Van Houten invented a way of extracting the sought-after cocoa butter from roasted, ground beans and separating the powder. The technique was revolutionary. Until then, chocolate had only been consumed as a hot beverage, but it could now be melted and poured into molds. With the help of now renowned companies – Poulain in France, Nestlé, Lindt, and Suchard in Switzerland, Cadbury in England, and Hershey in Pennsylvania – chocolate was brought to the masses.
French people now eat around 16 pounds of chocolate every year, compared to 10 pounds in the United States. However, Americans purchase far more chocolate on Easter. U.S. consumers buy the equivalent of 935 million dollars of chocolate compared to 296 million euros in France, where Easter falls short of Christmas and Valentine’s Day in terms of sales. “American tastes have evolved significantly,” says Jacques Dahan. “Very sweet milk chocolate was the leading trend a few years ago, but many customers now prefer slightly bitter dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa.”
German Bunnies and Flying Bells
On Easter in 2017, Americans devoured 90 million chocolate bunnies and 16 million sugar eggs! This is because both symbols are closely linked in the United States, where legend has it that a hare – a symbol of fertility – accompanies the return of spring while distributing eggs. This tradition began in Germany and was adopted by Protestant regions such as Alsace and England before making its way to the U.S. in the 18th century.
In France, a traditionally Catholic country, children are told that bells bring Easter eggs. In a sign of mourning, church bells fall silent between Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper) and Easter Sunday (the resurrection). According to legend, the bells go to Rome to be blessed and scatter eggs around gardens when they return. In one of his books, Belgian cartoonist Marc Wasterlain even depicted the misadventures of a flying bell shot out of the sky by a poacher!
The return of the bells has given rise to another tradition: the Easter egg hunt. On Easter Sunday or the following Monday – a national holiday in France – children run through gardens looking for Easter eggs hidden by their parents. In America, according to a tradition upheld since 1878, the White House opens its grounds every Easter Monday for the annual Easter Egg Roll. Originally started in Britain, the game involves participants using a stick or a spoon to roll a boiled egg* along the lawn. The first one across the line wins – but the shell has to arrive in one piece!
*If you are not agile enough to roll an egg with a spoon, why not reread Blaise Cendrars’ poem, Easter in New York, written while he was visiting America in 1911?
Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.