Hanukkah has many traditions, and one that every Jewish child looks forward to is unwrapping a disk of chocolate from its gold foil. But why do we eat coins during the Festival of Lights?
As you might imagine, the tradition of giving gelt for Hanukkah began with actual coins (the kind not made from chocolate). Jewish scholars trace gelt giving back to 17th and 18th century Europe, when it was a gift (or mid-winter bonus) for schoolteachers. Eventually, schoolchildren and students demanded their due.
The Chabad website offers several more spiritual explanations. It states that gifts of money allow the needy to celebrate and commemorate the Hanukkah miracle, and that it rewards students for their study (Hanukkah shares a root with the Hebrew word for education).
According to some sources, it may even represent the Maccabees’ victory itself, as Jews under oppressive rule were not allowed to mint their own coins.
But chocolate gelt is a purely American invention. American chocolatiers wanted to take advantage of a surge in Hanukkah’s popularity during the 1920s, after the festival had fallen out of fashion (being considered a minor holiday) during the previous half century. So manufacturers began producing chocolate coins. However, the idea might have had Dutch influences: that country gives out chocolate coins for the St. Nicholas holiday in early December, and the Dutch word for coin is “geld.”
Now, most American chocolate gelt is imported from Israeli manufacturers. But some domestic chocolatiers are producing high-end versions of the treat.