I love presents as much as the next person—and I also fight the battle against too much consumerism, like most reasonable parents I know. As my children take it upon themselves to make their Hanukkah “wish lists” for Uggs and Ivivva leggings, I cringe; my husband and I want their souls front and center, not their brand-name clothing.
“I’ll get four out of the eight things, right, Mommy? Well, maybe, at least three?” they ask with their big eyes. I remind them that the holiday is about the victory of a small band of religious freedom fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, over tyranny. They say, “But mommy,” and then I start lecturing about Jews who have co-opted Christmas gift-giving because of the timing of the two holidays. Then they walk away to put their lists in a safe place.
It’s challenging for me to teach moderation and self-restraint in a world where everything is on-demand: My children show me an item on Amazon, I click once, and two business days later, the package is opened. We see, we want, we get. No conquering involved. I am guilty of this, too.
I find that Hanukkah is an opportunity to give my children something worth fighting for. I can de-emphasize the materialism that has come to be associated with the small flask of oil discovered in a destroyed Temple, and which lasted eight days, and make Hanukkah “good enough” without presents, even as the neighbors down the street light up the night sky with Santa and sleigh bells.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, Judaism gives children the chance to do great things throughout the year—they ask the questions at the seder table, they drop coins in the tzedakah box, they help dress the Torah after it is read. “It ma[kes] heroes of the young,” he says.
This is not to say parents should be the anti-heroes. In our home, we do give our kids a few presents—after all, why shouldn’t Hanukkah be celebrated with a gift or two—we won! But we won’t give them after the blessings are sung in front of our menorahs at home, in time-honored tunes that remind me of my childhood, and we will not bestow present upon present for eight nights in a row. We do not want them to come to be expected. The menorah is not a Christmas tree.
There are others ways we fight back against the sense of entitlement: In our home, we can, and do, participate in programs that ask children to give one gift away to a needy child; we can create care packages for those less fortunate; we can volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day.
In Detroit, our family will venture out into the snow to joyous communal activities such as Menorah in the D, Chanukah Wonderland, any number of synagogue Hanukkah parties, and a private party for ex-pat Israelis who, like my husband, want to listen to something other than the Maccabeats.
It can be hard to see the small menorah against the dazzling lights of the season. But if we set our intention and stand our ground as the Maccabees did, we and our children can appreciate that the lights symbolize the victory of the Jews against all odds. That should be present enough.