When you first think of holidays and the color gold, your thoughts might turn to star-shaped tree toppers or wrapping paper. In actuality, this precious metal plays a significant historical and cultural role in two major winter holidays — both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Gelt is Yiddish for “money,” and it plays a part in traditional Hanukkah celebrations. Today, it usually refers to chocolate coins with golden wrappers, given to children during the eight days of Hannukah. History has it that the tradition began in Poland, when children would give golden coins to their teachers as tokens of appreciation. Over time the practice evolved to include giving the children coins to keep for themselves. Poor students would visit the homes of wealthier community members in hopes of receiving golden coins — a practice approved by the rabbis because of its connection to the miracle of the oil. The miracle of the oil is part of the story of Hanukkah’s origins, in which a candlestick with very little oil was lit and lasted for the full eight days.
The gelt became associated with golden-wrapped chocolate in the 1920s, when confectioners began marketing the product. Modern Jewish children often use these chocolate gelt when playing the traditional dreidel game. In very Orthodox Jewish communities, Rabbis still visit their people and bestow gifts of actual coins during Hanukkah.
Gold plays a significant role in this pivotal Christian holiday because it is one of the three gifts first offered by the wise men to the Christ child. Along with frankincense and myrrh, gold is reported to be one of the precious gifts of choice. The gift of gold is significant because it denoted that the wise men regarded the child as a king, in fulfillment of ancient Messianic prophecies.