SHARE Chocolate Day: A History

Happy Chocolate Day! Tomorrow, we’ll publish the first installment in a new SHARE blogging experiment: Five Tidbit Friday. Each week, we’ll post five news items regarding our union, our work, and our workplace, as well as other workplaces, unions, higher education, medical research, etc. In the meanwhile, on this festive occasion, for your reading pleasure, in an even more exaggerated spirit of freewheeling randomness, we provide an essay on the history of SHARE’s Chocolate Day . . .

A History

Why does SHARE celebrate with chocolate? Chocolate was selected for its status as the most dignified, if not regal, of the candies, one that has been celebrated since the beginnings of UMass Medical School as a potent emblem of health and vitality.

Actually? SHARE Chocolate Day was first celebrated in 2004. The story of its origins has clouded, obscured as though by a fine dusting of cocoa powder. It is generally accepted that the event began as something of a lark, a harmless piece of mischief, chocolate for chocolate’s sake, and an excuse to get together and smile.

Also, because brownies.

Of course, the earliest human interactions with chocolate actually date back much further. The Aztecs and Mayans were known to use cocoa beans as currency as far back as 600 CE; the rich among them turned the beans into a drink, and literally drank their wealth. In 1652, the drink came to England, when the country’s first coffee house began serving cups of coffee, tea, and--most expensively--chocolate.

According to The History of Chocolate, a person living in Tlaxcala, Mexico in 1545 could buy the following with their cocoa beans:

  • One rabbit (30 beans)
  • One avocado, newly picked (3 beans)
  • One avocado, fully ripe (1 bean)
  • One large tomato (1 bean)
  • One fish wrapped in maize husks (3 beans)

First advertised as an annual event, SHARE Chocolate Day has become roughly that, with a year or three missed along the way. Nothing about the event is fixed. Sometimes it happens on, say, the fifth of May (aka, “Choco de Mayo”), and, in years such as the current one, closer to Labor Day.

In various years, SHARE has collaborated to host Chocolate Day with various others, including Human Resources at UMMS, our sister SHARE union in the hospital, and with nearby local union and community groups. In some years, we’ve held door prizes and bake-offs, and raised money for charity. It has always been a community-wide, community-building event, open to all comers.

When chocolate reached the Spanish Royal Court in the seventeenth century, it was believed to cure fevers, cool the body in hot weather, and relieve stomach pain.

Current studies show that the health benefits of the oleic acids in chocolate might outweigh the negative impacts of its palmitic acid, thus resulting in a net positive effect on chocolate’s regulation of cholesterol levels. In addition, chocolate contains healthful anti-oxidants. (One hundred grams of unsweetened cacao contain 13,120 ORAC units, representing a respectable amount of Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.)

Of course, we know, too, that chocolate holds some culpability in the current obesity epidemic, which is associated with spikes in rates of heart disease, chronic inflammation, some cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Because, in part, unfortunately, brownies.

Processed chocolate first came to America in 1765 through its first chocolate factory, here in Massachusetts. The factory was operated by The Baker Chocolate Company, where, in 1938, chocolate workers formed Federal Labor Union No. 21243 of Dorchester Lower Mills. We don’t know how labor relations there evolved over time, although we do know that the factory owners and the union collaborated in the construction of a memorial dedicated to Baker’s employees who gave up their lives in WWII. (Incidentally, The Bakery and Confectionery Workers' International Union of America Local 464, which also formed in 1938, continues to bargain collectively, and to work with community and higher education organizations in and around Hershey, Pennsylvania.)

The chocolate coin has many sides. The issues that touch us seem to unfold in nearly infinite ways. Although we applaud current-day Massachusetts confectioners for reviving artisanal Mexican chocolate-making methods and employing fair trade practices, we also know that even now you don’t have to look far to find almost unimaginable working conditions.

SHARE Chocolate Day festivities have developed an odd tendency to associate chocolate with wisdom. Recently, participants have been invited to use the occasion to adopt a Zen-like and/or ridiculous motto for one’s self, such as:

  • “Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together” (Goethe).
  • Or, “Morning peevishness is a considerable emotional hazard” (Amundsen).
  • Or, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” (Maybe attributed to Confucius? Maybe George Bernard Shaw? Probably neither).

In all seriousness, through our silliness and our wisdom, SHARE is grateful for the prosperity of the union and of its members, and for the occasion to consume chocolate like Mayan kings and queens. We’re excited to work in this vibrant intellectual community, to learn and to share our learning. Still, we know that there’s a lot of work to do to make our Medical School, and our workplace, the best it can be. We’ve got a lot of connections to make, conversations to have, and things to do. And that, of course, calls for a very serious amount of chocolate. Including brownies.