Holiday Coins

by Brian Martin
December 22, 2017

Piece of chocolate gelt with a menorah on the front
Chocolate gelt, covered in gold foil wrapping for Hanukkah.

Around the world each year, people celebrate the holidays with a variety of different gift-giving traditions, several of which involve coins. The practice of putting gifts in a stocking, for example, dates back 1,700 years to Ancient Rome and the gold coins of Nicholas of Myra. Chocolate coins, or “gelt,” play a part in modern Hanukkah celebrations, as well, and date back until at least the 17th century.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone on the street today that has not heard of Santa Claus. But few people know the history behind the Christmas tradition of Saint Nicholas. In America, the popular image of a jolly, plump Santa with reindeer traces back to Clement Clarke Moore’s early 19th century poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (or “Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

Over the next century, skilled advertisers would continue to refine the American Santa Claus for the purpose of selling their products over the holidays. It was then that we would see elves, the bright red suit, Mrs. Claus, and many other additions to the tale.

The real Nicholas, though, was a Christian bishop that lived in the fourth century A.D. in Myra (a city in modern-day Turkey). He was well-known for his generosity, love of the poor, and charitable acts.

Perhaps the most famous story from Nicholas’s life dates from around 330 A.D. and involves the bishop saving three girls from poverty. He did so with anonymity – at least until he was discovered – by tossing gold coins through the family’s window at night. The coins happened to land in stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. From this story came the earliest Saint Nicholas tradition of secretly putting gifts in a stocking.

Obverse and reverse of a gold medallion featuring Emperor Constantine
A gold medallion from the reign of Constantine sold at auction in 2015 for $198,000. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

It is impossible, of course, to know exactly what kind of coins Nicholas used in his charitable efforts. However, reason would dictate that these coins would have been Roman (since Nicholas lived in a Roman province) and depicted Emperor Constantine (who ruled until 337 A.D.).

Coins and medallions of Emperor Constantine still exist today and can be bought and sold from a variety of different retailers and auctions. The objects range in value from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on condition and scarcity. In Los Angeles in June 2015, one rare Constantine medallion sold for $198,000.

The tradition of giving coins for Hanukkah dates back with certainty to the 1600s-1700s. However, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz explains, the tradition has roots in the very origin of Hanukkah itself, over 2,000 years ago:

“Before gelt (‘money’ in Yiddish) became synonymous with chocolate, it primarily referred to small amounts of money exchanged between friends, or gifted from parents to children during Hanukkah. The exact origins behind this tradition are murky. Popular legend links it to the miraculous Maccabean victory over the Ancient Greeks, when the Hasmonaean descendants minted national coins to celebrate their freedom.”

In Europe, the tradition of recognizing religious teachers with a token of gratitude around Hanukkah influenced the modern practice. In the 1920s, American candy companies introduced gold- and silver-wrapped chocolate gelt. According to Haaretz, these companies may have drawn their inspiration from the tradition of chocolate coins given to children as part of St. Nicholas Day, celebrated throughout Belgium and the Netherlands in early December.

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