When you grow up with holiday traditions, you tend not to question the history or significance of the traditions. Those traditions are simply a part of that holiday. You have no reason to wonder why the traditions exist. I grew up receiving Chanukah gelt; foil wrapped chocolate coins in yellow mesh bags. My children grew up receiving Chanukah gelt; foil wrapped chocolate coins in yellow mesh bags. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post explaining Chanukah gelt to those who don’t celebrate Chanukah, that I realized I had no idea why those foil wrapped chocolate coins are a part of Chanukah tradition.
Researching the origins of giving children gelt (Yiddish for “money”) on Chanukah, I came across a variety of explanations. The history of the Jews goes back a long way. Along the way, there are different explanations and descriptions of events. The explanations I am sharing here are the ideas I found that are most meaningful to me.
First, a summary of Chanukah itself. Chanukah means dedication. The holiday celebrates the rededication of the Temple after years of Jewish persecution during Syrian-Greek occupation of the Holy Land. Rededicating the Temple required oil to light the menorah (candelabra) in the sanctuary. There was only enough oil for 1 day and miraculously the oil lasted eight days until new oil was available. This is why the Chanukah celebration lasts for eight days and includes the lighting of candles on a candelabra (chanukiah) with 9 stems. One candle symbolizes the original oil and the others symbolize each night the original oil burned. Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday. Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas and did not originally include the exchanging of gifts. However, because Chanukah falls around the same time as Christmas most years, which commercial interests have turned into a gift giving frenzy, the tradition of gift giving is often observed on Chanukah by American Jews.
Now finally, the connection to the chocolate coins. The word Chanukah is also related linguistically to the Hebrew word for education, “hinuch”. Centuries ago, it became a tradition in some European communities to give children coins during Chanukah to give to their teachers in thanks for the freedom to have a Jewish education. Later coins were also given to children at Chanukah as an incentive to study Torah. Many families today, including mine, give their children Chanukah money to donate to charity, to teach them the importance of giving to those in need. In the early 20th century, an American chocolatier introduced foil covered chocolate coins as symbolic Chanukah “gelt” for children. The candy is eaten as a treat and is also used in playing the dreidle (spinning top) game.
Because of the importance of oil in the Chanukah story, food items cooked in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts are traditional. Both are delicious. Neither travels well in a care package. These Very Chocolate Chanukah Gelt Cookies do travel well and stay fresh for about five days. They aren’t cooked in oil but are made with olive oil instead of butter. They are soft-chewy and are, as the name indicates, very chocolaty. I rubbed a bit of edible golden glitter on top to make the cookies resemble golden coins. They are all sparkly and glittery in person. I had a very hard time trying to capture some of that sparkle in the photos. It was extremely frustrating to end up with pictures that look like cookies dipped in flour. Take my word for it. These Very Chocolate Chanukah Gelt Cookies adorned in gold would dress up any holiday cookie tray or care package.
- ¾ cup all purpose flour
- ¾ cup natural cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon hot water
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1- 1 ½ cups mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Edible gold pearl dust (I used Wilton brand)
- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in hot water. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat olive oil and eggs for at least 3 minutes until combined and slightly thickened.
- Add in sugar and vanilla, mixing until thoroughly combined.
- Add the flour mixture. Mix just until dough forms.
- Beat in baking soda/water mixture.
- Stir in chocolate chips.
- Using a large (2 tablespoon scoop) place dough balls on prepared baking sheets about 2” apart.
- Bake for 9-11 minutes or just until edges are set. The cookie will still look wet in the surface cracks.
- Cool completely on baking sheet.
- To decorate, pour a small amount of edible gold dust onto a plate. Using a soft brush or finger tip, apply the dust lightly to ½ of the top surface of each cookie.
- Store cooled cookies at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 5 days.