When I was a kid, I thought that Hanukkah Gelt referred to the chocolate coins which I would unwrap, ever so gently, from their golden-foil wrapping. As I matured, I came to prefer the green kind of Hanukkah Gelt, although I must admit that a chocolate coin still manages to hit the spot.
Why have Jews traditionally given money to our children on Hanukkah? While it is now commonplace to also give gifts, the original tradition remains to give gelt.
In classic Jewish style, I will answer this question by posing another question: What does Hanukkah mean?
Numerous explanations are given. One of them is that the root of the word Hannukah can be connected to the Hebrew word for education, chinuch. Thus, every Hanukkah law and custom can be seen as instructive in the field of education.
When we give our children Hanukkah Gelt, we are sending them an important life message.
On the one hand, money is extremely powerful; its mere possession can make you wealthy, whereas if you lack it, you are poor. On the other hand, money on its own is nothing like food, clothing and shelter, the basic necessities of life; yet with money, one can procure all that one needs, and can also help others through charitable giving.
If, however, one guards one's money in a piggy bank, then the money has not been used to its potential. Its potential is wasted.
One of the fundamental principles in educating children is to explain in clear language that G-d has granted them a treasure of tremendous intellectual and emotional strengths and capabilities. All one has to do is utilize them to the fullest capacity.
And this is where the difference with money comes into play: If you don't have money, then you're poor. However, when it comes to spirituality, we can all become wealthy. We just need to utilize and nurture our talents for the good.
When parents explain this with simple, heartfelt words to our children -- and even better, when we act as a living examples -- then both the giver and the recipient of the Hanukkah Gelt will gain immeasurably. A freilichin Hanukkah -- Happy Hanukkah!