Hanukkah Gifts

A history of the practice and some tips for parents.

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From Gelt to Gifts

Dr. Dianne C. Ashton, Director of American Studies at Rowan University and author of an upcoming book, The American Hanukkah, explains that the trend of giving Hanukkah gifts really took off in the 1950s. At this time, Jewish child psychologists as well as rabbis started promoting gifts as a way to make post-Holocaust Jewish kids happy to be Jewish, rather than sad about missing out on Christmas.

Christmas envy remains a concern for many Jewish parents today. Janet Zuckerman, a mother of three, says it is particularly hard for her kids this time of year because their cousins celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas and receive presents for both.

She and her husband used to give their children one present each night for all eight nights of Hanukkah, but they've moved away from that practice. "We buy one gift for the whole family, like a Wii. This year we're going to Disneyland and I've told them that that's their gift."

Making it Meaningful

Like Zuckerman, most parents do give some gifts for Hanukkah. Though gifts might make Hanukkah seem like a "Jewish Christmas," there can be value in taking time to select a thoughtful and tasteful gift for a child you love. And there is undeniable pleasure in seeing children excited to play with new toys--especially when those toys are helping them learn and develop new skills.

Rabbi Sandy Rubenstein, director of Jewish Chaplaincy Services at the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville, MD, offers some advice for families that want to give gifts, but also want to avoid excessive materialism. She suggests that families can light candles to honor justice or peace, or talk about what brings light into one?s life or what places in this world need more light. Even with gift giving, family holiday celebrations can still aim to foster social consciousness.

One parent doing just that is Jill Myers, a mother of two. Growing up¸ she received a gift every night of Hanukkah. But when she got married, her South African husband found the custom totally foreign: "He was like, 'What are you talking about, gifts?'"

When Myers' kids do receive Hanukkah gifts, she has them look through their toys and determine what they no longer play with and can, thus, donate. Also, at winter break of each year, her children decide where to give whatever is in their home tzedakah (charity) box.

Myers says, "They don't always see the tzedakah we give so those are two things I've tried to balance with gifts. Some years they might get something every night but one night it was from us, one night from our parents, and other nights a book from the book fair."

Stick With Small Stuff

Like Myers, you can consider letting other relatives and friends cover most of the eight nights. For your gifts, you can choose to give more modestly. Myers says she feels comfortable giving her kids small gifts like books. This year her children looked at catalogues and picked out board games to play as a family. "We try to keep down on the electronics and try to make it about family--not a Christmas-like bounty of stuff."

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Natasha Rosenstock

Natasha Rosenstock is a writer deciding whether to buy her one-year-old daughter Hanukkah presents this year. She can be found at www.natasharosenstock.com.