The Real Reason People Eat Chocolate Gelt On Hanukkah

Christians get plenty of chocolate during their holidays, whether it's the chocolate Easter bunnies or the sweet stocking-stuffers on Christmas morning. According to Heavy, the Jewish observance of Hanukkah has risen in prominence in the U.S. because it is so close to the Christmas holiday — and the combination of Jesus and Santa is so dominant in American culture this time of year. Even the relatively recent practice of gift-giving over Hanukkah is due to the influence of Christmas, per Chabad.org. But Jews aren't copying Christians when they give foil-wrapped chocolate coins called gelt over the eight-day festival of lights. Chocolate may be a Christmas thing, but chocolate gelt is uniquely rooted in Hanukkah history.

Chocolate gelt has various connections to Hanukkah. "Gelt" is Yiddish for money, and coins in particular have been associated with Hanukkah ever since the holiday's origin. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that lasted for eight days and kept the menorah lit in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the occupying Syrian-Greeks. According to Reform Judaism, the very first celebration of the temple's rededication ("Hanukkah" means "dedication") may have been spent distributing coins obtained as the spoils of battle to soldiers, or their widows or orphans. The Hasmonean dynasty, descendants of the Maccabees who defeated the Syrian-Greeks, minted coins in recognition of their newfound independence. That independence, of course, is the reason for the Hanukkah season.

Chocolate gelt stems from the tradition of giving children real money during Hanukkah

In a practice dating to the sixth century, Jews would offer coins as charity to poor members of their faith because the Talmud required that all Jews, regardless of means, obtain the oil and candle supplies needed to celebrate Hanukkah (via Reform Judaism). In Europe in the 18th century, Hanukkah gelt became associated with the practice of paying rabbis who traveled to remote villages to give religious instruction. This came about because the Hebrew word Hanukkah, besides meaning "dedication," is close to the word for "education."

According to Hanukkah Fun and Chabad.org, children would receive money during Hanukkah, too, as a reward for studying the Torah, or as an opportunity to learn the value of money. Often, parents required their children to give a portion of their gelt to charity.

The transition from real coin to chocolate occurred in the U.S. in the 1920s, per Heavy. Loft's candy company came out with chocolate coins wrapped in silver foil and marketed the treats as chocolate gelt for Hanukkah. Today, chocolate gelt remains a part of the Hanukkah tradition, wrapped in silver or gold foil (via NPR). The chocolate tends to be hard and not very tasty; nevertheless, it is an important part of the joy of Hanukkah. Children who aren't tempted to eat the not-so-gourmet chocolate right away typically end up gambling with it in the game of dreidel.