Hanukkah gelt refers both to coin shaped chocolates given to children during Hanukkah and to the practice of giving small monetary Hanukkah gifts to family and friends. The word gelt is derived from the German word “geld,” meaning “money.” Now a popular Hanukkah tradition, gelt did not gain widespread popularity in the U.S. until the early 20th century.
The origin of giving and receiving money and chocolate coins during Hanukkah is unclear. There are several competing theories. One states that the tradition of giving gelt stems from a legendary victory by the Maccabeans over the Ancient Greek army. Supposedly, several decades after the victory, the descendants of the Maccabeans had coins minted to commemorate the event.
Another theory regarding the origin of gelt states that the tradition descended from the 18th century custom of gifting religious educators with money during Hanukkah, similar to the convention of tipping servers or bartenders today. The word “Hanukkah” is related to the Hebrew word for education, “hinnukh,” and the holiday has historically been a celebration of Jewish religious education. This theory holds that the tradition of children gifting money to their religious educators shifted over time until it was customary for parents to also give gelt to children as a reward for doing well in their studies.
Popularisation of Hanukkah
Following the Civil War, Hanukkah was not widely celebrated by American Jews. The Festival of Lights was regarded as a minor, education focused, holiday. In the beginning of the 20th century however, Hanukkah began to gain popularity as a celebration parallel to Christmas. By the 1920s, the Hanukkah traditions of spinning the dreidel, eating latkes, lighting the menorah, and gifting gelt to children were widely celebrated.
As Hanukkah gained more popularity among American Jews, American companies such as Loft’s began to market gold and silver-wrapped chocolates shaped like coins in order to capitalize off of the tradition. These chocolates, still popular today, could be seen at drugstores being sold in small mesh pouches intended to resemble money bags. These chocolates may have been inspired by the Christmas tradition of putting coin-shaped chocolates called “gelt” in the stockings of children on Christmas morning.
Many families today gift their children both monetary gelt and chocolate gelt during Hanukkah. Children are often encouraged to donate a portion of the money they receive for Hanukkah to charity, an act known as “tzedakah.” Most geld gifted during Hanukkah today is imported from the Dutch chocolate company Steenland Chocolate and Israeli chocolate manufacturers such as Elite and Carmit, although several American companies still manufacture and sell chocolate gelt.