Hanukkah is best known as the holiday in which a light in the Temple of Jerusalem burned for eight days, but there's a lot more to it than that (check out King Antiochus IV's many issues here). Today, children are often given small chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, or gelt, on Hanukkah, and their true significance is fascinating.
Jewish tradition holds that receiving small coins - and not counting them near the menorah lights - is symbolic of the prohibition of the sacred lights. People weren't supposed to count money near the candelabrum because its light was sacred, not for the profane practice of counting change. Other suggest that small change was given as an reward to diligent Torah students, perhaps because of the etymological connection between Hanukkah and hinnukh (education).
But there are other possibilities about the origin of gelt. Since the holiday celebrates the Maccabees (a.k.a. the Hasmoneans) kicking out the Seleucid Greeks from ruling Jerusalem, and in 165 B.C.E, the first Hasmonean kings minted coins in celebration of their great victory. Perhaps these specific coins were the origin of gelt.
But millennia later, they'd transformed into something quite different.Around special Jewish occasion like Purim, cities and towns would mint new coins. But it was towards the end of the year (around Hanukkah), when villagers would give holiday tips to traveling workers, local teachers, and Average Joes, and to the poor. Gelt coins were a symbol of generosity.
But how did these holiday tips turn into chocolate snacks? As Jewish families moved from little villages, shtetls, to the city, they began giving coins to their kids rather than fellow townspeople. There was a ninteenth-century Belgian and Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas giving real and chocolate coins to kids, which Jewish communities may have adopted. As Hanukkah rose in popularity in Jewish America, so, too, did some of Christmas's practices rub off on the former. And in 1958, Israel minted commemorative coins to use as gelt, bringing the practice full circle.
Image via Nuts.