As one of those parents who plans presents for the upcoming Chanukah season months in advance, I decided that the theme for this year's family Chanukah would be Chanukah gelt (money). That doesn't sound so genius-y. Folks have traditionally received Chanukah gelt for hundreds of years. Even I remember as a child getting shiny quarters from my great-uncles and grandparents for Chanukah.
Today we shop for gold and silver foil-covered coins with chocolate candy inside. Or we prepare crisp new money bills (20s, 50s, maybe even 100s) to give to our children.
Some say that the tradition of Chanukah gelt began during the Middle Ages, but perhaps the Chanukah gelt tradition began with the Chashmonaim themselves. The Chashmonaim, sons of Matityahu the Kohen Gadol, are the heroes of the Chanukah story. They bravely battled the Syrian-Greeks against all odds in order to free the Land of Israel from oppression, free the Jewish people to worship G-d and keep His mitzvot (commandments), and rededicate the Holy Temple. The Chasmonaim not only liberated the Land of Israel from the tyranny of a foreign superpower, but they minted their own coins with symbols relating to Bet HaMikdash (The Holy Temple) on them.
Possibly our tradition of giving our children coins for Chanukah is yet another way of recalling the miraculous victory of the few against the mighty, the righteous against the wicked, the Torah followers against the Hellenists. Just as our ancestors proudly created Jewish coins when freedom returned to the Land of Israel, we give our children the tradition of freedom in our Land with the remembrance of Chanukah gelt.
Our family is blessed to be living in the Land of Israel. However, Jews live throughout the world today. There is almost no country on the globe that does not have Jewish citizens. Those Jews surely give their own children Chanukah gelt as well.
These thoughts influenced me to collect for my children, Chanukah gelt from all over the world. I made a little treasure box for each child, and filled each with foreign pennies, half dollars, and other change.
Thanks to friends and neighbors, we were able to gather little collections for each child. (If you were one of the kind folks who helped us, THANK YOU.)
The coins came from Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, France, Great Britain, Tunisia, Morocco, America, Poland and many other countries. They were minted recently or as far back as the turn of the 20th Century...1867 America, not long after the Civil War....1937 Italy, as the fascists were rising to power...1956 Israel, the year of the Sinai War.
I told my children that each coin was a piece of modern or not-so-modern history. Each coin represented a time and place frozen in a small piece of silver or bronze or nickel.
When Chanukah arrived, my husband and I gave our children their gelt. I was gratified that they were as excited about their treasure boxes as I was. And they understood the deeper meaning of each cent, dinar, peso, euro, franc, krone, pound, yen and more.
Jews throughout the world have many different customs according to every holiday, but it's a great feeling to know that they're keeping up traditions that unite us, like the Chanukah menorah, latkes, jelly donuts, and Chanukah gelt.