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?
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!