The Evolution Of Chocolate Gelt On Hanukkah

Have you ever celebrated Hanukkah? This Jewish "Festival of Light” falls in December of each year, right around Christmastime. The holiday commemorates the victory of a group of Jews known as the Maccabees, who revolted against Syrian-Greek armed forces in the formerly Jewish territories of the Middle East in the years 167 to 160 B.C. (via World History). The culmination of the successful revolt was the retaking of the seized Jewish temple of Jerusalem; When the Maccabees rededicated the temple, they lit the traditional Jewish oil lamp known as a menorah. As the story goes, they used olive oil, and although it was only enough to last for one day, it burned for eight days and nights (via History). Ever since, Jews light a menorah every night during Hanukkah — though typically with candles, not oil.

Other than the lighting of the menorah and celebrating the oil miracle by eating fried foods like potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, Jews observe the holiday by exchanging gifts, playing with a spinning top called a dreidel, and gifting gelt, chocolate "coins" that come wrapped in foil and imprinted to look like real money (via PureWow).

The gelt tradition originated in Europe and the coins were real

Anyone who's celebrated Hanukkah is familiar with the tradition of giving gelt — chocolate "coins" wrapped in foil — to the children present at the celebration. And although the custom is now entrenched, it's a relatively new one when you consider how ancient Judaism is.

According to Heavy, real gelt — which is the Yiddish word for money — was typically given as tips to Polish Jewish school teachers during Hanukkah, beginning in the 17th century. The tips were also shared with rabbis, who during the holiday would travel to remote villages to teach local people. Over time, however, the children — who were supposed to share the tips with their teachers and rabbis — began to ask to keep it for themselves. By the 1920s, Loft's, a now-shuttered candy company that was based in New York and was once the largest in the U.S. (via Ephemeral New York), picked up on the tradition as a way to market its specialty. The company, Heavy writes, introduced chocolate coins wrapped in foil to be given as "gelt" to Jewish children during the holiday, as opposed to gifting them real money. The tradition is still going strong today.

"It's what human life is made of," Ariel Cohn, who ran the Jewish preschool Tree of Life, said of Hanukkah (via NPR). "Holidays and gatherings where you see your family and your friends. And you can make anything a part of tradition, really."