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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.

© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Ann Los Altos 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. Reply

Vivian regina,sk canada 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. Reply

Kathy Quebec, 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. Reply

Liora Manchester December 12, 2012

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. Reply

Daniel Boston December 12, 2012

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. Reply

catherine ny December 11, 2012

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. Reply

Constance Fort Worth, Tx December 2, 2012

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! Reply

Fruma Delray Beach, FL December 21, 2011

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. Reply

Allison New York, NY December 6, 2010

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. Reply

Patricia Lodge Mashpee, MA December 4, 2010

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. Reply

g. b. December 1, 2010

Chanukah and Purim are both considered minor holidays,
Happy Chanukah! Reply

Anonymous NYC December 1, 2010

Great question and response.

I learned some great truths about Chanuka that I never knew about which still isn’t too much.

Growing up in a secular modern community and family, most Jewish and Christian children probably received the same amount and quality of gifts. Ironic how a victory to celebrate and continue the Jewish emphasis on the spirit vs. the Greek Hellenistic physical emphasis has evolved in much of modern society to a largely physical celebration among many Jews.

I agree about providing one or two special gifts and then providing educational gifts. Reply

Sara Akko, Israel November 30, 2010

It's hard to not cringe at the questions that arise this time of year for our children.

As a Jew who grew up in the States we were taught to tell non Jews that Chanukah was not a major holiday, that it was militaristic in nature and not one of our big days. It was an apparent attempt to distance ourselves from the nation's other winter holiday (the one with trees and gifts). But it damages our heritage when we say this is a minor celebration. Even when our traditions have seemingly similar actions like gift giving we don't have to overcompensate by belittling ourselves.

As an adult living in Israel, this is not a problem. We can celebrate with gifts and gelt and family traditions that we played down in my childhood. We try to avoid spending too much on gifts but Chanukah in our house means handmade gifts and lots celebration of the miracle and our many blessings B'Eretz HaKodesh, in the holy land.

PS As children we always had one night of food pantry shopping and work in the soup kitchen Reply

Anonymous Tacoma November 29, 2010

WHen our kids were small, they got one big present (bike etc.), then 7 smaller presents, like books, boots, gloves etc. I remember my older cousin who never got anything at Hanukah having to make up stories so her friends wouldn't feel sorry for her. It's the quantity the sheer overabundance that causes problems, not a few thoughtful maybe useful gifts/ Reply

Nomy Jacsonville, fl December 17, 2009

My husband and I were raised in different countries (Mexico and Venezuela) both with strong Jewish communities. We were also both raised with in the conservative Judaism and neither him or I ever go gifts during Hanukah. Taking into account that our countries are 99% catholic, for our parents giving in to gifts giving would have been very easy. But, it was never an issue.
We now live in USA and are trying to raise our daughter and son the same values. I actually work in Jewish Education and Hanukah is always the hardest holiday to celebrate with others because of the fact of gift giving. Our son is already 12 and our daughter 8 and even thought the understand the concept of not gift giving in our family, they are always left out when they go to shul or hang out with other friends. Being Jewish in America is very easy. Raise a Jewish child in a 99% Catholic setting is not! Why is it then than in this country people do not want to stand up for real Jewish identity values? Reply

Anonymous Akron, OH December 6, 2009

For those who live in a big urban area where there are many Jewish families/ observant relatives and lots of events, it makes sense to downplay gift giving of Chanukah. That being said, if the family lives in a dwindling Jewish community where the children have minimal contact with other Jewish children and have zero extended family with kids, ramping up Chanukah works well. I grew up in such a community, and my kids are in such a community now. Having a beautifully decorated home (with Hannukah items and blue and silver colors) and lots of great gifts makes it a great occasion and makes my kids feel much less left out. However - and this is important - we couple this with shul attendance, a tiny family Hannukah dinner and having a special event for an elderly, isolated Jewish person. One night of Hannukah, part of the kids' gifts will be some money - to donate to their favorite cause .

A great, meaningful week! Reply

Anonymous el paso via jewishaggies.com December 2, 2009

As a child me and my brothers recieved gifts everynight of chanukah as well as all the traditions, it did help us feel special when our neighbor friend got her christmas tree. As we grew older and came to understand that it was just to compete with xmas the gift giving stopped, but the traditions continued. So I think if he child is going to be exposed to nonjews, I would not want my kid wishing they had the whole xmas tree and presents, so why not bribe them for a couple years to make them think that chanukah is better until they are old enough to know that it really is!!! Reply

Anonymous CH CH , NZ December 2, 2009

we are converting, my husband myself and 6 children. The eldest is 25 the youngest is 4, and one of the most special things has happened. As parents we expected to have a full scale riot, a war, when we deleted the unecessary gift giving related to the end of the year.
BUT no, our wonderful children have each accepted and in fact thrill with the observance of chanukah, the latkes, the doughnuts the lighting of the menorrah.
Last year we read story after story before and after lighting and we made such wonderful memories and this year the children are excited about reading the same stories and new ones as they celebrate the miracle of chanukah. We also celebrate our special miracle of chanukah. Reply

Leslie Anne Shapiro Montreal, Canada December 2, 2009

Growing up, recieving gifts at chanukah helped me to learn to love the holiday instead of being embarassed that I was different from my friends, before I was old enough to appreciate it for the religious aspects alone. When someone would ask me 'what was your favorite christmas present?' my answer was never 'I don't get christmas' it was always 'I get a special holiday called chanukah and it lasts all week!' Reply

Deborah Nelson Commerce City, Co. December 29, 2008

We gave our son a coupon to get out of one chore each night. We have been feeling like Chanukah is getting too much like Christmas any way. It should be a time of rededication. This year our son decided to wear his tallit more and participate in morning prayer more. This I am proud of. Reply