Sunday, December 16, 2007

More Gelt Trivia from Christian & Jewish traditions

Apparently the word verification has not been working for some people.

So, here's from the "food timeline," via Denise:

The eariest references we find in USA print to indivually foil-wrapped chocolates dates to the early 20th century. The oldest references we find specifically describing coin-shapes dates to the 1930s. According the the advertisements below, candy coins have been promoted as treats for pirate theme parties, anniversary decorations, and holiday gifts.

"Our big 5-lb Christmas box of 'Athletic Girl' chocolates, 99c box...Many hand wrapped in gold or silver foil."
---S. Kann Sons advertisement, Washington Post, December 20, 1908 (p. A1)

"What to serve at a buffet style "pirate" party was a recent request that came to the Tribune's cooking deparment...fill the chest with those "pieces of gold" candies which are chocoalte wafers wrapped in gold foil adn stamped to represent coins."
---"Hostess Need Not Walk the Plank at Pirate Party, Chicago Daily Tribune, December 9, 1938 (p. 24)

" for things other than Santa Clauses. Toys, for which Czechosolvakia long has been famous, are being made out of it...Foil, painted realistically, covers each toy-shape...Milk chocolate appears, too, in inexpensive Christmas tree decorations--pine cones, Yule bells and so on...In addition, the versatile chocolate has been molded into "alphabet blocks"...a "zoo"...and a "sewing kit"...At Loft stores a treasure chest ($1.25) holds foil wrapped chocolate "coins," when empty, the chest may be used as a bank."
---"News of Food: Imaginative Boxes, Bewildering Contents Make Christmas Candies More Attractive," Jane Nickerson, New York Times, December 18, 1948 (p. 9)

"Hanukkah has a special delight for children. Gifts are distributed, along with candy coins covered with gold foil."
---"8-Say Observance of Hanukkah Opens," New York Times, December 11, 1963 (p. 14)
Who invented candy coins? Our food history sources do not reveal any particular person/company/place claiming to have made the first items.

And here's from Cian:
Bishop Nicholas (who was to become Saint Nicholas) was walking in the street and walked by the house of a man with three daughters. They were a poor family, and the father had nothing to offer as a dowry, although all his daughters were of marrying age. With no money, the father may have been forced to sell his daughters into slavery. St. Nicholas (who was not a saint at the time) threw a bag of gold coins
through an open window to provide enough for the eldest girl to be wed. The bag landed in a stocking that was hung to dry by the fire. He repeated the gesture twice more so all the daughters of the family were able to marry.

That is why people leave out stockings for Santa Claus, it's a carryover from a celebration of St. Nicholas Day (December 6). In a similar fashion (as sometimes the story is the daughters' shoes and not stockings), we leave a shoe by the back door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, and he leaves treats if you have been good.

Depending on the story, he chases children and beats them if they've been bad, or
they get nothing. The shoe is by the back door as a gesture of secrecy to good deeds (which St. Nicholas was said to be very good at). There's a stress in the New Testament on having a private connection with G-d through good deeds and prayers.
And finally, the explanation that I learned growing up:

First of all, some notes about language. "Gelt" is a Yiddish word meaning "money." The words origin is from the German word for "gold," but in modern Yiddish, and I think dating back at least a few centuries, it refers to any money, not only to gold coins. And since it is a Yiddish word, it is a Jewish word. The various Christian traditions related to foil-wrapped coins may or may not be related to the parallel Jewish traditions - I'm still curious about that. What is clear though, is that Christians would never have called those coins "gelt," until English-speaking American Jews turned it into the Yinglish word that refers only to chocolate-covered coins for playing dreydl with, and not to real money at all - which I'm guessing would be some in the last 50 years or so.

So, about gelt as part of the dreydl game: At Chanukah it is traditional to play dreydl, a gambling game played with a little top (called a dreydl) which is so mind-numblingly random, I'm amazed when the game holds the attention of anyone over 4. The dreydl has 4 sides each marked with a Hebrew letters, which together are an acronym for the the Hebrew phrase "a miracle happened there," referring to the original story behind the holiday. Each player starts with a roughly equal collection of chocolate gelt. Players bet piles of chocolate gelt, and depending on which letter the dreydl lands on, coins are exchanged with the central pot of gelt.

It has always been my understanding that the dreydl game predates chocolate, and certainly predates individual foil-wrapped chocolate coins. People used to play dreydl with real pennies, or an equivalent coinage in whatever country they were in. Shiny pennies were also the traditional gift that parents gave to children on Chanukah. The chocolate came later. Perhaps the switch occurred when shiny medal money no longer came in sufficient denominations to seem like an exciting gift. I don't know.

At a Chanukah party this year, I heard at least 3 different versions of why we play dreydl. The one I've heard most often is that in various diaspora communities, ruling gentiles forbade Jews to study Jewish texts. Therefore when the Jews studied, they kept some dreydls and coinage around, and if a gentile neighbor happened by, the Jews would quickly close their books and pretend to be gambling rather than studying. Stereotypes of Jews being what they were and are, I guess people believed them. And because of the acronym on the dreydl, children could still be learning Jewish history, religion & language (as well as basic arithmetic) even as they play-acted at being greedy, ignorant money-changers.

1 comment:

Theodore said...

About Christians calling money "Gelt", In Dutch and German the word for "Money" is "Geld", which dependant on speaker occasion may sound identical, and that leaves out the rare, but historical, instances in which in a trade, as in cattle trade, the Jewish hegemony was/had been locally so great that EVERYBODY in the bussiness, Jewish or not used Yiddish as the languague of the trade, that Christians used "Gelt" in those circumstances is beyond doubt.