Hanukkah is almost here, and as we get closer to the beloved holiday, I’ve seen more articles on gift giving through the eight nights — specifically, the origin of the practice, and whether the custom is appropriate to include in the celebration of the holiday. There’s also a lot of finger-pointing and questioning of the origin of Hanukkah presents. Most signs point to Christmas; namely, that Jews adopted the practice of gift-giving during Hanukkah to keep up with societal norms.
However, I believe we give gifts to our children on Hanukkah for an entirely different reason — one that is meaningful, appropriate, and rooted in Jewish tradition.
In my family, we give presents to our boys, ages 6 and 8, on each night of the holiday. In our home, we have themed nights: We have a fun toys night, a clothes night, a STEM night, a night of books and a calendar for the upcoming year, and a sporting goods night. There’s also one night for board games, one for instruments, and, of course, Legos! We alternate the “fun” gifts like Transformers and games with needed items like clothes and books. My kids know that every night won’t be a cornucopia of gifts that they will be ecstatic about, and that’s OK. We have fun in other ways during Hanukkah — usually participating in community events or volunteering. This year, those will be replaced with safer at-home activities, like cookie decorating, playing dreidel, and potato grating competitions (#KitchenHack).
However we celebrate, we give gifts to the kids each night. This year’s Hanukkah presents are all wrapped and ready (and coded so I know which night is which), and my boys are very excited to unwrap their first set. And, let it be known: In our family, this gift-giving tradition has nothing to do with Christmas.
My kids go to public school, and over the last four years, I’ve been grateful to have been invited into the classroom to explain Hanukkah to their classmates. I review the holiday basics with them: the dreidel, the traditions, and the story behind the well-known but still mysterious holiday. Over the years, with a few lessons learned, I have developed a pretty solid lesson plan (former teacher and neurotic Jewish mother here!), so I know how to explain things in a way that will make sense to the kids. In the process, I have developed a pretty amazing theory for why we give gifts on Hanukkah.
The more I break it down for other people, the more I realize Hanukkah is about one thing. It’s about not the lights; it’s not about the candles; it’s not even about the oil. Rather, Hanukkah is about miracles. And miracles come in many shapes and sizes. Many, many years ago, it came in the form of the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks, and for our people — and miracles have graced us in many ways since. As persecuted as Jews are, and as much of a minority as Jews continue to be, we still persevere, and we are here to tell and share the tale of what happened so many years ago.
Am I grateful and happy for the light, the oil, and the deliciousness that is involved in the happy holiday of Hanukkah? Of course! These are all things to be celebrated. But, in the end, we have survived through it all to tell the tale — and that, in itself, is a miracle.
Every year, we tell the story of Hanukkah — which, in a nutshell, mirrors most Jewish holidays: we struggled, we nearly died, we survived. We tell the story of Hanukkah to our children, now, just as we will in generations to come. The retelling of this tale is a reminder that our very existence is a miracle. Especially during these upsetting and unsettling times of Covid-19, hearing the story of Hanukkah encourages us to appreciate the small stuff, and to recognize some everyday blessings and miracles.
There are countless examples of modern-day miracles, after all. We can celebrate our health, our homes, our families, or technology. We can recognize the small miracle that is the first sip of coffee in the morning, the taste of Shabbat wine, or even just a gorgeous, big blue sky. In these crazy times, even just a simple, deep breath can be a beautiful thing — a miracle.
Which brings me to the topic of gifts. Why does this Jewish mother think that it’s completely appropriate to give eight nights of presents to our kids on Hanukkah? Because I believe that during this holiday, in which we celebrate miracles, it is more important than ever to celebrate our children. As anybody who has struggled with fertility, or miscarriage, or stillbirth, knows, each and every child is a miracle. For people who have not experienced those things, I think it might be easier to forget this truth, in the messy hecticness of parenthood. So I’ll say it again for the people in the back: Our. Children. Are. Miracles.
I think it’s appropriate to give gifts to our children on Hanukkah because we celebrate the miracle that is them. In the day-to-day drudgery of raising children — especially now, during a pandemic — we can easily forget their simple existence is miraculous. Even when our lives seem to revolve around them constantly, we must remember they are not a given — they are a gift from God.
Remember that the planets and stars and universes had to align in order to create each and every living child — and these children are an essential part of the celebration of Hanukkah. They are the reason that the Maccabees hid in caves to study Torah and played dreidel when the Greeks came to check in on what they were doing. We make sure that the eternal light (that lasted eight instead of one day) is passed down to this next generation. When we celebrate Hanukkah, we celebrate not only the past but the future, and all of the miracles of our next generation.
So the next time you are wondering if giving gifts to your children is just a byproduct of Christmas’s popularity, consider this alternative: By giving presents to our kids, we are honoring the spirit of Hanukkah. Whether your presents are large or small, celebrating our littles’ existence is an authentic way of commemorating all the miracles we, and our ancestors, have experienced.
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