Growing up, I always felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of gift-giving on Chanukah. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a case of imitating Christmas, resulting from a keen desire not to feel left out during the dark, freezing days of December, when it seems like everyone is decorating trees, filling stockings and unwrapping lots and lots of presents.
Traditionally Chanukah is celebrated by telling the story of the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid King Antiochus; lighting candles; singing Chanukah favorites such as Ma’oz Tzur and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah“; eating latkes (with sour cream or apple sauce, your choice), sufganiot and chocolate gelt; and playing dreidel. Presents? It’s complicated.
Rather than gifts, the original Chanukah custom was to give Chanukah gelt (a slang Yiddish word for “money”). This tradition comes from the Talmud, which stipulates that everyone, including the most poor, must light Chanukah candles. A person who can’t afford candles was encouraged to go door to door in his community to collect enough money to buy them. Because the Torah teaches that tzedakah (charity) should be given in a manner that respects the dignity of the recipient, the custom developed of giving to charities, which enabled everyone to afford candles.
Ironically, the celebration of Chanukah was once in danger of disappearing from Jewish American homes. “The customary candles disappear, more and more from Jewish homes,” lamented Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in 1884. “Kindle the Chanukah lights anew, modern Israelite!” urged Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler a few years later. “Make the festival more than ever before radiant with the brightness and beauty of love and charity.” In her book “The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture,” Jenna Weissman Joselit explains that for many years Jews tended to celebrate Christmas, putting up trees and exchanging gifts.
In the 1920s Yiddish newspapers began to promote changes in the way Chanukah was celebrated. Ads for Chanukah gifts were accompanied by editorials encouraging parents to include gift-giving in their Chanukah celebrations “to command the attention and affection of Jewish children.” By the 1940s, gift-giving on Chanukah had become an established tradition. Chanukah games came on the market, along with a vast array of menorahs of every size, made from every possible material. As the years passed, decorations, greeting cards, Chanukah-themed wrapping paper and music were mass marketed. In schools and other public settings, Chanukah and Christmas became linked together as part of the “holiday season.”
For some, Chanukah is perceived as the “Jewish Christmas,” a term I have always loathed. Ironically, the Chanukah story is about the fight against forced assimilation into Hellenistic culture. There’s nothing wrong with making a big deal of Chanukah, unless it’s the only Jewish holiday Jewish children celebrate. The key to putting Chanukah into proper context, rather than reducing it to an imitation of Christmas, is for Jewish families to have joyous celebrations of Rosh HaShanah, Sukkot, Shavuot, Passover, Purim, Tu B’Shvat and L’ag B’Omer. All are steeped in tradition and ritual, which enrich Jewish family life. And, of course, we also have Shabbat every week. A well-rounded Jewish life eliminates the need to overdo Chanukah.
When I look back at our family celebrations, I think of Rosh HaShanah dinners with family and friends and our tradition of sending our guests home with a jar of Israeli honey as a symbolic way of wishing them a sweet New Year. I remember Passover seders where we used multiple Hagaddahs to make the telling of the Passover story real for all of our guests. Chanukah memories are pleasant, but not as vivid. It’s comforting to light up the darkness (it is called “The Festival of Lights”), preferably with multiple menorahs. We give gifts to immediate family, and I do enjoy finding just the right present for those to whom I give. When our kids were younger we devoted one night to choosing a charity to which to donate. Chanukah tells an important story and can be a lot of fun.
So, by all means, enjoy Chanukah gift-giving. But please remember that Chanukah is but one of the many times during the year when we celebrate Jewish life, history and tradition.
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