4 Things You May Not Know About Hanukkah Gelt

You know the holiday experience doesn't feel totally complete without Hanukkah gelt, but here are a few things you might not know about the popular candy coins.
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Photo by: juicybits

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Hanukkah gelt, those shiny, foil-wrapped chocolate coins we give to kids — or devour ourselves, when no one's looking — are a holiday staple in many Jewish households. They have a nostalgic worth way beyond their actual flavor or their price tag, which is usually around $1.50 per sack, though you can pay significantly more for higher-end organic, fair-trade "artisan" coins.

You can use gelt (aka "money") to gamble with in a game of dreidel (though a greedy winner may get a stomachache along with his or her bragging rights), pile them into a bowl for a holiday centerpiece or simply hand them around after the candles on the menorah are lit and warmly flickering.

You know the holiday experience doesn't feel totally complete without these glimmering discs, but here are a few things you might not know about Hanukkah gelt:

1. They weren't always chocolate — and they weren't always given to children: Hanukkah gelt used to be real money people gave as a tip at the end of the year to workers like teachers and shopkeepers. In Eastern European shtetls, at Hanukkah, you paid these people "a little bit extra," Gina Glasman, who teaches Judaic Studies at Binghamton University, recently told NPR's The Salt. However, she notes, "By the end of the 19th century, you see, mysteriously, the custom switch from giving tips to these guys to giving a little gift to your children."

2. They weren't always a Hanukkah thing, either: Back in the shtetl, coins were minted for charitable giving on special occasions or holidays like Purim, which historically is more of a gift-giving holiday than Hanukkah. But as people moved out of these communities, giving rituals began to change.

3. Although many popular brands of Hanukkah gelt are made in Israel, the candy coins' prevalence owes a lot to American Jewry: As American Jews assimilated throughout the 20th century and Christmas expanded its reach as a national holiday, giving gifts and gelt became a bigger part of Hanukkah as well. "You were able to signal that wonderful sense of being part of the larger society, and apart from it, at one and the same time," Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University told NPR.

4. If chocolate Hanukkah gelt were real gold, it would be worth some serious coin: Money magazine recently did the math: "We found the volume of our $1.49 bag of Hanukkah gelt using the displacement method. Then, armed with the easily obtained density of gold — 19.32 grams per cubic centimeter — we calculated how much gold coins of the same size as discs of Hanukkah gelt would weigh. Finally, we calculated how much a small bag (containing one large and three small coins) of real gold gelt would cost at the current market price of $38.45 per gram," blogger Jacob Davidson explains. "The results: All together, the one large and three small coins in our bag would be worth about $7,785." Gulp!

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