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Is Giving Chanukah Presents a Non-Jewish Custom?

Is Giving Chanukah Presents a Non-Jewish Custom?

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Dear Rachel,

I am having a very hard time, as the holidays approach, with teaching my children the beauty of Chanukah and not having them see it as a Jewish X‑mas. This is especially difficult when all of their non-Jewish friends will be receiving endless gifts, and they expect that as well. I know it has become somewhat of a tradition to give children gifts during Chanukah, but is this really a Jewish custom? I don’t want this Jewish holiday to be reduced to great presents. Any advice?

Unwrapped

Dear Unwrapped,

I am so glad you wrote, as you raised a very important question that many of us can relate to. You ask a very straightforward question: is gift-giving on Chanukah a Jewish custom? The answer, however, is a little less direct. There are no biblical or Talmudic roots to the concept of gift-giving on Chanukah of any kind.

There is, however, an age-old custom to give gifts of gelt (money) to children on Chanukah, so that we can teach them to give some of it to charity—and just to keep things festive and happy. Some, in fact, have the custom of gelt-giving each weeknight of Chanukah.

See: Why the Gelt?

The education of children is the foundation of what we celebrate on ChanukahThe concept of gift- or incentive-giving is prevalent throughout Jewish tradition, and does have a link to Chanukah. In order to make that link, we need to understand the meaning of why we celebrate on Chanukah.

The Greeks, unlike the Persians in the story of Purim, were not out to annihilate the Jewish people through the destruction of our bodies. The Greeks were after our souls. Their aim was to elevate the importance of physical matter over spirit, and to defile our belief in one G‑d. They wanted us to banish the concept of the divine, abolish Torah study and adopt their Hellenistic perspective. So the battle we fought in the story of Chanukah was not just physical, it was also very spiritual.

In order to defy the Greeks and emerge victorious, we needed to re-educate ourselves and strengthen our resolve in the learning of Torah and performance of G‑d’s commandments. The word chanukah shares a root with the word l’chanech or chinuch, which means “to mold” or “to educate.” Education, especially the education of children, is the foundation of what we celebrate on Chanukah.

Maimonides writes that a child needs to be provided with an incentive to learn Torah. He suggests that a child be given “walnuts, figs and honey” to sweeten his learning. And here is the connection with the concept of giving Chanukah gifts or gelt (money in Yiddish). The idea of giving money is also an opportunity to teach the child about the concept of giving charity and helping those less fortunate than yourself.

Educating a child is a huge responsibility. And while providing incentives for good behavior and growth in Jewish learning is encouraged, we have to be careful that the gift or incentive provided doesn’t overshadow the deed. The same idea applies with giving gifts on Chanukah. It is a very Jewish concept to increase in joy and celebration during festive holidays. We emphasize our joy by sharing Chanukah meals with friends and family, by decorating our homes with the menorah lights, and by celebrating with songs and gifts. We also emphasize our joy by sharing the story of Chanukah and deepening our understanding of it and its meaning in our lives. That is the essence of Chanukah. The latkes (potato pancakes) and dreidels (spinning tops) and gifts are fun, but they are extras.

It is possible, however, to highlight the meaning of Chanukah through gift-giving. For example, giving your kids books or tapes or videos about the story of Chanukah, so they understand what it is we’re celebrating. Or, by drawing attention to the concept of the triumph of light over darkness—another powerful theme of the Chanukah story—you could invite your kids to bring “light” where it is dark. You could, for example, make a project and bring it to a retirement home and brighten up someone’s day, or hand out cookies or latkes or winter coats to homeless people, or teach another Jew about our Chanukah traditions and invite them in to make a blessing over the candles with you.

It is possible, however, to highlight the meaning of Chanukah through gift-givingSince we increase in light each day of Chanukah, we can teach our children to increase in their work of spreading light as well, and each day of Chanukah to do some act of giving. There is no limit to the creativity factor here, and I’m sure your kids can offer some wonderful ideas as well.

The bottom line is: if we expect our children to really get into the spirit and meaning of Chanukah, we have to provide them with that venue. Now is the time to brush up on your knowledge of Chanukah and explore some of its deeper teachings (click here for the Chanukah site, which is a phenomenal resource). It’s okay to give gifts on Chanukah, as long as they are given with the purpose of drawing a child close to his or her roots, and that the act of giving speaks louder than the gift itself.

Have a wonderful Chanukah!

Rachel

“Dear Rachel” is a biweekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sarah Zadok.

Sarah Zadok is a childbirth educator, doula and freelance writer. She lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, with her husband and four children.

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Discussion (31)
December 16, 2015
As a child, I came to see Hanukkah as an ersatz Xmas, and disliked it on that account, especially when I noticed that it has no real relation to the Hebrew calendar, but falls, ineptly, on the 25 of the Hebrew month, as if in imitation of the pre-Christian solstice festival. Nonetheless we gave our little boy eight gifts (one for each night), two of which came from his grandparents, and I served latkes or other fritters every night, throughout his childhood. Now he gives HIS little boys Hanukkah gifts, and I conform to his practice.

HOWEVER, the main Jewish holiday season is autumnal. When our baby came, I began to build and decorate a sukkah, and HE now builds and decorates a sukkah. THAT is the Jewish time to REALLY celebrate, & it is FUN! And the Sukkah reminds us that our true home is GD, not mere bricks or stones.

Pesach goes without saying. But let's revive Sukkot rather than trying to copy Xmas.
Ann
Los Altos
November 30, 2015
Even before my son and I converted, he would receive one large gift, and the same amount would go to a charity of his choice, ie, world vision or a local children's charity. He is now 25 and we still give a charity gift rather than a physical gift.
Vivian
regina,sk canada
December 16, 2012
This was very informative for me as I came to this site to learn more about the origins and customs practiced today. Not being a Jew I was always unsure about the act of gift giving in relation to Chanukah to my friends who are Jewish. I have to admit that I have made some blunders in the past and am extremely humbled by the fact my friends accepted in good faith the gift which I thought was in keeping with their traditions. I truly am more enlightened not just by the traditions of Chanukah, but also by the true meaning of sharing the knowledge to children for generations to come.
Kathy
Quebec, Canada
December 12, 2012
Chanukah gifts
We have always given Chanukah gifts each night but they are not big gifts. We buy a main gift (or their bubby or uncle does) one night for the children to share, one night their gift will be homemade doughnuts, one night chocolate coins, another night potatoes latkes, another night apple latkes wth parve cream or confectioners icing drizzled over the top, another night sweets for dreidel, the rest of the nights the gifts will be practical ones, like pj's, or something that they would need that would be bought soon anyway (like underwear, new kippa etc). After lighting the Chanukah menorah's we all sit down to learn Halachah on Chanukah, sing songs, play dreidel, open or eat the gift of the day. We always emphasise to the children the mitzvah's of Chanukah and that it is not all about what presents people receive but how we as Yidden celebrate it. We encourage them to tell non-Jews, when asked, what Chanukah is really about and how proud we are to be part of this wonderful time.
Liora
Manchester
December 12, 2012
We should emphasize Sukkot by building a sukkah and decorating it beautifully.
Sukkot IS a major festival. In communities where we are accustomed to light a huge menorah at City Hall, we should put up a beautiful Sukkah at City Hall. The gifts and decorations at Hanukkah are paltry beside the splendid Xmas decorations, songs, TV shows, etc. etc. etc. As a child, I always hated the attempt to make Hanukkah into an ersatz Xmas. There is simply NO WAY for Hanukkah to complete with the whole December shmear. Instead, we should claim OUR sacred time, which is not December but Autumn--a huge long month of holiness and festivity. Instead of seeing the multitude of autumnal celebration as getting "all Jewed out" (as one friend put it), we should rejoice in it, just as our neighbors rejoice in their December festivity. For us, Autumn is a time of rejoicing and hope and brotherhood. Hanukkah isn't, and we shouldn't try to pretend that it is. If you want to exchange gifts, fine, but be aware that we, too, have a glorious month full of holy days and festivals.
Daniel
Boston
December 11, 2012
christmas vs chanukah
This article was great. It is never a question of competition unless you want to see it that way. The only reason why Christianity knows about giving gifts to make people happy is because of the Jewish faith teaching the world the power of gift giving in relation to bringing more light into the world. The Jews brought this message to the world. In Victorian England poverty was everywhere. Through the story of Scrooge Charles Dickens was able to take the Jewish concept of charity use the Christmas holiday and change the culture. America has indeed become commercial in its appeal in greed. But without the good intend beneath the glitter is the light of those Chanukah candles trying to light the dark world of the non Jew.
catherine
ny
December 2, 2012
Making gifts you do give work
We do give gifts, but we have a very specific plan attached. On night one we give socks & underwear to remind our children that this is not an important holiday, as well as how many children would love to get socks and underwear. Night two we give Jewish books, reminding them of the importance of a Jewish education. Night three we donate to charity. Night four we pick a family gift, something we can do together (this ranges from games we can all play together, to a museum membership). The remainder of the nights we do give small gifts (many of which are homemade), which I have no problem doing. I am sure many will disagree, but I want my children to understand what gifts should be about and what our holiday is about as well. And I have to say, while I realize it is not for everyone, I love the tradition our family has established!
Constance
Fort Worth, Tx
December 21, 2011
The December Dilemma
I have never received or given a gift for Chanuka, except some shiny pennies as a child and some chocolate coins to my own child. I do not believe that I was in any way harmed by not imitating my Christian friends and neighbors. A friend of mine who did go in for the "eight gifts--eight!!" ritual was in tears a few months later when her children demanded to color Easter eggs.
Fruma
Delray Beach, FL
December 6, 2010
Gifts are one small part of the holiday...
For us, gifts are part of the Chanukah ritual. We do not spend a lot of money, but we take time to wrap a small gift for each child to open as part of the larger celebration
.
My grandparents, may they rest in peace, fled Eurpoe just a step ahead of the Nazis. My cousins, siblings, and I have wonderful memories (and photos!) of Chanukah at their home, as they had a family party each year on the Sunday night of Chanukah.

Today, I maintain this ritual. In our home each night (and with a large group of family on the Sunday night), we light candles, then sing lots of songs together. Then every child who can speak tells a story or shares a bit of holiday learning, and then we have a gift exchange. Then dinner, latkes, apple sauce, and sufganiot and fruit for dessert. We end the night with competitive dreidle playing for chocolate gelt.
Allison
New York, NY
December 4, 2010
Gift giving
The giving of gifts, I think is celebrating the Joy which the gift of family, and friends, bring in celebrating Hunukkah. The Miracle of the oil, is a blessing from the Lord our G-d, and also a gift from Him as well, for Standing up for Him. When we bless Him, He blesses us!! Teach our children to give their best to the Lord our G-d, and not to come to Hm empty handed.
Patricia Lodge
Mashpee, MA