Words: Shamim de Brún
Every Christmas season, I was treated to a hot chocolate while we watched the Big Big Movie after the news on RTE. This is such a ubiquitous memory that sometimes I wonder if it’s even mine. It’s so ingrained in our culture, yet when I asked around, everyone responded with a “why is that?”.
What is it about a hot mug of chocolate in the depths of winter that brings Christmas to the frontal lobe more than eating a Chomp? The chocolate bar that seemingly snuck its way into every selection box in the nineties. There was just something magical about that purple tub of Cadbury’s instant chocolate that triggers the nostalgia, doubly so at this time of year.
Is it something to do with the Americanisation of Irish culture through TV in the era of the quintessential millennial childhood? Maybe? I’m pretty sure hot chocolate was the stuff of legends in the Boomer era.
Hot drinks and winter are pretty synonymous. We are the land of drinks more tea than the brits ever could. We’re even the coffee capital of Europe. While some were given milky tea year round, hot chocolate was the kind of treat like a Coke at the cinema that was very specifically occasional. When the temperature falls below seven degrees, sourcing a deliciously comforting cup of molten cocoa is at its most indispensable.
Hot chocolate then warms your whole body from the inside out. It’s exquisite. That could be a hangover from its ancient origins.
Chocolate was consumed almost exclusively as a drink throughout its 4,000-year history, starting in Central America and the lowlands of Mexico with the Mesoamericans. Hot chocolate was generally only within reach of elites and royalty. An association of this decadence still lingers hundreds of years later.
Around 1850ish, bars of eating chocolate started to be made. It was an Irishman who then added milk to chocolate to create what we call hot chocolate. According to the Belfast Telegraph, Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor from Killyleagh, got into this extremely bitter cocoa drink enjoyed by the locals where he worked in Jamacia. Sloane, in classic Irish fashion, added milk to it. This is genuinely the first known instance of drinking chocolate or hot chocolate.
The decadence of hot chocolate cannot be denied. You feel like you can taste opulence when drinking the milky warm chocolate drink. It is thick, silky and rich tasting! Christmas in some ways, is about luxury. Or if not luxury, then certainly decadence.
A comforting, warming cup of molten cocoa is particularly debauched when drank after a full dinner.
We love giving kids milk-based goods. “Them bones, them bones need calcium” et al. So it stands to reason that when plying young children full of sugar back in the day, a drink based on milk allowed our parents to pretend that it was in some way good for us.
That said, hot chocolate has always been associated with health benefits despite its glaringly high sugar content. A flurry of medical studies on dark and hot chocolate confirmed this. There was this one extolling chocolate’s virtues. And this one that states hot chocolate actually increases the microcirculation in your skin, warming you. Another found that chocolate triggers the brain to release endorphins that induce feelings of calm. In all of these studies, drinking chocolate or hot chocolate was used.
Part of what makes chonky mugs of hot chocolate so satisfying is the size. You never got a small hot chocolate as a kid. It was seemingly as big as a bowl of cereal. One of my more boujie friends’ parents used to give us hot chocolate in actual cereal bowls and tell us this was how the French drink it. We lapped it up.
Then things are big. They feel like a treat. We all love giant stuff. Our brains give us dopamine when we see big foods. Evolution has given us the instinct to eat a lot every time we can, preparing for hard times. It’s the drive to survive, like puffy-cheeked squirrels storing up for the winter. It’s also fuelled by competition: beating the others to the food.
Our brains reward us for it, by releasing pleasure chemicals – in the same way as drugs and alcohol, according to CNN.
It dovetailed with the invention of instant hot chocolate, making it more affordable for the masses. Instant cocoa, as it was called then, was invented by Miss Swiss in the sixties. This democratised hot chocolate, meaning anyone could make it without breaking the bank by buying legit chocolate and melting it. In 1989, the globalists of the incipient boom copied the successful American product and brought it around the world just in time for our childhoods. Or mine, anyway. I can definitely see parents picking up this newfangled hot chocolate among their Christmas treats for the young ‘uns.
These days there are all kinds of instant hot chocolate. It’s ubiquitous around Ireland. But the tradition of drinking thicker, richer and less sweet chocolate is back in vogue. Cafes that serve spicy and flavoured hot chocolates with high-quality chocolate as a base are the way most of us learn these days. As with all things, we’ve become more conscious of where the ingredients are from and will pay a few cents extra to be sure a farmer has been paid appropriately for our god-tier chocolatey comfort.
We as a people are genetically programmed to love sugar. Glucose is the petrol of the brain, so when you eat it you get that sweet sweet dopamine. So every time we gulp down a warm hot chocolate, especially if it’s covered in marshmallows. Simple brain chemistry. We especially crave sugar when we are cold because that high-calorie treat helps keep us warm and happy in the cold and dark. And it’s coldest and darkest around Christmas time.
There’s no denying that hot chocolate gets phenomenal press at this time of year. Every café worth its Maldon sea salt has a special Christmas-themed hot chocolatey beverage. Some with alcohol, many with just a multitude of perversions of chocolate. My boss’s favourite is the chocolate brownie type.
So many things that we associate with Christmas come from some marketing boardroom of some corrupt company looking to pocket as much of our cash as possible. But that doesn’t really take away from them. So Coke made Santa red, and the Candy Corp alignment conspired to push hot chocolate at us (nb: this is a joke). We got to have hot chocolate in all its glorious forms.
If we ever overthrow the capitalist overlords of the world and eat the rich, I bet we’ll still be drinking hot chocolate when it gets cold. Comforted in our new socialist utopia.
No matter the reason, hot chocolate will now and forever be a nostalgic Christmas drink for Irish people of a certain age. The nostalgia attached to it is particularly poignant at Christmas
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