Chanucah presents, while getting a major modern era boost from the popularity of Christmas presents, have roots in Jewish tradition. Baghdadi Jews used their children cakes and gifts on Chanucah. The giving of money (in Yiddish, gelt) is a European custom that goes back centuries.
Historian Eliezer Segal says that the earliest record of giving Chanucah gelt is of parents giving their children’s teachers. “Chanucah” derives from the word chinuch, meaning education and edification. Chanucah, then, is a time to remember and thank our teachers.
Some of the earliest Jewish coins we have are from the Maccabean period. Minting coins was a symbol of national independence. Giving children coins on Chanucah was a reminder for European Jews of the lost glories of Jewish sovereignty. The chocolate coins made in Israel today often bear symbols of the Jewish state, such as the menorah surrounded by two olive branches.
Today, over 70 per cent of Israeli Jewish families give Chanucah gelt. The average amount is 160 shekels per child.