It’s the Season of Giving. Christmas presents are wrapped and waiting under sparkling Christmas trees. Children eagerly await the arrival of Santa, with the hope of presents for all the good girls and boys.
But if you do not celebrate Christmas, Santa isn’t coming down your chimney with a sack of gifts. It’s not your holiday.
“But you have Hanukkah,” people say to their Jewish friends. “And you get presents for eight nights.”
This is true for the majority of Jewish families — presents are exchanged each of the eight nights of the Hanukkah holiday, which this year begins on Dec. 20 and ends on Dec. 28. But Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas” and the focus of the holiday traditionally is not gift-giving, but on celebrating miracles and freedom from oppression and struggles against assimilation.
Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. There is a single ritual — lighting candles and reciting blessings. It is a communal holiday, with synagogues hosting Hanukkah parties and families gathering to light the chanukiyah, a nine-branched candelabra (commonly called a menorah, but that is technically incorrect as a menorah is seven-branched). One candle is added for each of the nights, plus a “helper” to light each of the candles.
It is traditional to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes, or latkes, and the Israeli favorite, jelly donuts (sufganiyot in Hebrew). The foods fried in oil commemorate the miracle of the small cruse of oil that burned for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem.The Temple had been defiled by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Judah the Maccabee and his Jewish followers revolted against the oppression of King Antiochus, and recaptured, cleansed and rededicated the Temple.
So where did the tradition of gift-giving come in?
The giving of Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for money) is an old custom dating back to Europe when students would give gelt to their teachers (who were not paid for teaching Torah), as tokens of appreciation. A tradition of giving children small amounts of coins, nuts and raisins developed during Hanukkah. But in the last 50 years, with the enormous influence of Christmas, Hanukkah has become the main gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Small Gifts are Common
Those with young children tend to give their children eight gifts, but often they are small and inexpensive items.
“We do give our children gifts — small things they actually need, like clothing or developmental toys — that we would have purchased for them anyway,” noted Rabbi Ilana Garber of Beth El Temple in West Hartford.
Debra and Caleb Lopez of Windsor give their children (Laura, 11, and Isaac, 7) one small gift for each of the eight nights.
“We don’t give them huge, extravagant gifts,” said Debra. “We don’t spend hundreds of dollars.”
To her, Hanukkah is “more about lighting candles and spending time with family.” They decorate the inside of their home with festive Hanukkah plates and tablecloths and display Debra’s chanukiyah collection. The interfaith couple (Debra is Jewish; Caleb is not) have a special tradition — on the last night of Hanukkah, they invite family and friends to gather around the candles and enjoy a make-your-own-sundae party — complete with homemade fudge, peanut butter sauce and whipped cream. This year, Debra is attempting to make homemade marshmallows.
A Night for Charity
Families often celebrate Hanukkah by setting aside at least one night as a time to give to charity.
Rabbi Garber and her husband Adam Berkowitz plan to have their two young children (Noam, 2, and Yaron, 10 months), give to children in need. Last year, they took their eldest to My Sister’s Place, a shelter for women and children in Hartford, to deliver gently used toys and clothing.
The rabbi plans to continue a tradition she learned from her parents: One night is “tzedakah” (charity) night. The family determines a certain amount of money to go to charity and each family member gets to “nominate” a charity and explain its importance. Then, they vote, and a winner is determined.
“It’s a fun game and it makes the season of giving so much more — it’s about giving, about education our children and about considering how we might take our blessings to help the world around us,” said Rabbi Garber.
In a Hanukkah message sent out by the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, educators said many Jewish people identify Chanukah with their own “ongoing struggle against assimilation." The candles “shine brightly as a badge of honor and identity.” For them, Hanukkah’s message is one of optimism and faith.
Hanukkah: Literally means “dedication” in Hebrew. Often referred to as the Festival of Lights, it is an eight-day festival that begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Jewish lunar calendar. This year, Hanukkah is from Dec. 20-28. The date fluctuates on the Gregorian calendar, although it usually falls in December.
Chanukiyah (plural chanukiyot): The candelabra which holds nine candles; one for each night of Chanukah, and one that is used to light the other candles.
Dreidel: A Yiddish word which means “to turn around.” The square top spins and is used to play a traditional Chanukah game.
Gelt: Yiddish for money. Traditionally, coins were given to children at Hanukkah.
Judah Maccabee: The man who led the Jewish people in their revolt against King Antiochus, precipitating in the Chanukah miracle. Maccabee means “Hammer” in Hebrew.
Latkes: Potato pancakes traditionally prepared and served on Hanukkah.
Shammash: The ninth or “helper” candle which is used to light each of the other eight Hanukkah candles.