When I was growing up, Chanukah celebrations were all about playing dreidel, baking latkes and lighting brightly colored candles. How times have changed! These days, holiday observance requires several jaunts to Toys"R"Us and an entire trunk laden with packages from the mall. Aside from emptying our pocketbooks, this practice makes the holiday feel more like the festival on the secular calendar around this time of year, and less like the Jewish festival of lights.
My Chanukah panic sets in even before the Hebrew month of Kislev arrives. Weeks before the holiday begins, my friends and family are already comparing notes on their fabulous finds. Every year, I have to remind myself not to fall into the trap of out-of-control gift-giving just to keep up with the over-commercialized Goldberg's or to make the holiday fun. Distributing gelt (traditionally, a small amount of money), after all, is more authentic to Chanukah tradition than giving gifts.
All the gift hype surrounding the festival of lights gives me pause to wonder: when exactly did the victory of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil turn into an excuse for conspicuous consumption?
What children remember most about a holiday celebration are not the giftsChanukah has always posed a particular challenge for Jewish parents because it arrives around the same time as a certain secular holiday that is surrounded by an inordinate amount of music, lights and action. Some feel they need to compensate by a lavish eight night gala of extravagant gift-giving.
But, more often than not, what children remember most about a holiday celebration are not the gifts but the positive memories their parents create. A present is quickly unwrapped and soon forgotten. But the sensation of being in a home filled with guests, joy and the aroma of freshly baked latkes may last forever.
When you consider the meaning of Chanukah, it's about the Jewish struggle to maintain observance within a non-Jewish world. The Maccabees' victory was not just a military triumph but a win over assimilation as they succeeded in preserving the Jewish tradition. Chanukah presents a wonderful opportunity to convey the message of maintaining a strong identity despite outside pressures.
So why not celebrate this holiday by looking at it through the prism of Jewish tradition, rather than comparing it to other festivals?
There are dozens of activities that can enhance your Chanukah celebration while emphasizing that the Jews remained true to their heritage in an era when it was more hip to be Greek.
- Beautify. In our house, we start creating the Chanukah mood a week or two in advance of the holiday. I get out the Chanukah box filled with homemade decorations featuring menorahs and Maccabees that the children made in previous years, dating all the way back to their preschool careers. We hang them up in our windows and around the candle-lighting area. After all, publicizing the miracle is a big part of celebrating Chanukah.
- Light. Every child lights their own (often homemade) menorah. We place them in the window for the whole world to observe. Seeing an army of beautiful menorahs lit up against the dark night elicits a sense of pride and is a reminder that we should be a beacon of light to the world.
- One way to show children the beauty of the holiday is by sharing it with friends and relativesParty. I pull out my phone book and start inviting. One of the best ways to show children the beauty of the holiday is by sharing it with friends and relatives. Some children may find it particularly meaningful if you invite people who would not ordinarily observe the holiday so they will feel an extra responsibility to spread the joy.
- Cook. We head to the kitchen where we cook potato latkes, and if we are particularly ambitious, sufganiot – donuts – with powdered sugar. (Unseasoned cooks and children may want to use a latke mix and buy their donuts from the local bakery.) In our family, we often make several variations of the latke recipe and then have a taste test. One of my friends holds a latke cook-off among her relatives, with the winner earning the ceremonial latke spatula. In other homes, a variety of deep fried foods are cooked up and consumed, including borekas (phylo dough stuffed with potato or mushroom) or Moroccan sfing (donuts).
- Play. At my children's Chanukah parties, everyone makes their own menorah out of marshmallows, licorice, chocolate and pretzels. They also play dreidel using pennies as the reward and hold a vigorous game of Greeks vs. Jews dodgeball.
- Fun. One of my friends holds a "Mystery Maccabee" project in which everyone picks the name of a family members from a hat so that they only need to buy a gift for that person. At their annual Chanukah party, everyone has fun guessing who got whose gift.
- Teach. In the midst of all the fun and games, many people utilize Chanukah as an opportunity to teach their children to think of others who are less fortunate. One way to do this is by encouraging them to donate one of their gifts or some of their gelt to sick or needy children. Other philanthropic options are donating non-perishable items to a local food pantry or volunteering in a soup kitchen.
At the end of eight days, Chanukah is all about bringing together family, festival and authentically Jewish memories. Not to mention those mouth-watering latkes.
Editor's Note: Upon seeing this article, Deena's sixth grade son, Yehudah Fuksbrumer, decided to write the following rebuttal. Use the comment section below to weigh in with your opinion!
To Gift or not To Gift? - The Rebuttal
By Yehudah Fuksbrumer
There's been some talk over the past few years about making Chanukah more meaningful by not distributing gifts. But I disagree. I believe that parents should buy their children Chanukah presents. Lots of them.
What could make you more proud of being Jewish than getting a lot of Chanukah gifts?Some people think you shouldn't give Chanukah gifts because it ruins the whole point of Chanukah – which is to remember the miracle of how the oil in the Temple stayed lit for eight days even though there was barely enough left for one day. But here are a few reasons why I believe that giving gifts on Chanukah makes the holiday more special.
Chanukah is not just about remembering the Chanukah miracle but about being proud to be Jewish. What could make you more proud of being Jewish than getting a lot of Chanukah gifts? It might even encourage non-Jews to convert to Judaism when they see us getting eight nights worth of gifts!
Chanukah is a happy holiday. We are very happy that the Maccabees defeated the Greeks. But we are even happier when we get gifts.
Then, there's the economy. If everybody runs to the mall and buys a lot of presents, that will boost the economy even more than President Obama's stimulus plan. And in the process, you'll make your child's Chanukah a whole lot better.
Some people have suggested donating gifts to the poor or sick on Chanukah. I agree that that's a nice idea which can be made possible if we get new gifts on Chanukah. Then we can give all of our old toys to the poor without missing any of them.
Finally, Chanukah gifts can actually bring your family closer together. For example, if your Aunt Zelda, who you don't really like, buys you a new cell phone or Blackberry for Chanukah, you might actually start texting or calling her more.
Now that would be a Chanukah miracle!
(Yehudah Fuksbrumer is a sixth grader from New Jersey.)