A Cultural History of Chanukah Gelt

Resource Kit by
Jessica Kirzane

Module Content

Introduction

Introduction

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its capture by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Although historically it was perceived as a minor holiday, Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated holidays among Jews in America today. 

One of the many traditions associated with the holiday is giving Chanukah gelt, or money, as a celebratory gift. Although this gift-giving was at one time a gratuity offered to workers, not unlike what happens on the Christian Boxing Day, this custom later transformed into the nineteenth-century European practice of giving coins to children in celebration of the holiday. In America, under the influence of the ubiquitous commercial Christmas season, the tradition of giving coins was largely replaced by the practice of giving gifts. When the company Barton’s Candy introduced their chocolate coins as a Chanukah confection in 1951, nostalgia for the older practice of distributing coins to children fueled the success of this new treat. This kit explores the history of Chanukah gelt as reflected in modern Jewish literature and culture. Through this history, the kit offers a window into the idea of money in modern Jewish identities as well as the transformation that European Jewish traditions underwent in American contexts. 

A note about spelling: The Yiddish and Hebrew names of the holiday Chanukah are transliterated many different ways in contemporary American English. We have chosen to use the spelling that is consistent with the rest of the Yiddish Book Center’s website. However, when referring directly to a published work that uses a different spelling, we will refer to the holiday using that alternate spelling.

Cover image: Illustration by Uri Shulevitz, 1978.