That was then: Although Hanukkah was not historically of relative import as a holiday, it was awaited with great anticipation by the children! Let’s face it…children are excited about Hanukkah gifts! Gelt, a gift of money that is given throughout the holiday, provided the leitmotif for Sholom Aleichem’s story “Chanukah Gelt.” In quest of holiday coins, two brothers brave a visit to Uncle Moishe-Aaron. After tolerating relentless and tiresome conversation, the boys are rewarded…with valueless Russian coins. OY!!!
This is now: Gelt is still given; however, on a community-wide basis, American Jews in the late twentieth century expanded upon the European practice of supporting the poor in the Jewish community as part of the Hanukkah Gelt tradition. The propensity for Jews acting charitably during the Jewish holidays, notably Hanukkah, may have eased the way for American Jews to embrace volunteerism at Christmas-time. American Jews, acting in the spirit of Hanukkah, have broadened the gelt-giving practice to acts of tzedakah outside of the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jewish institutions have used the tradition of Hanukkah gelt as a theme for seasonal fundraising.
In the 1920s, American candy companies, such as Loft’s, first introduced gold and silver foil-wrapped chocolate gelt. According to Rabbi Deborah Prinz, who explored the historical nexus between Jews and chocolate in her book On The Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals And Recipes To The Magic Of Cacao, links this inspiration to chocolate coins (called “geld”) given to children during the St. Nicholas holiday celebrated in Belgium and the Netherlands in early December.