By Natasha Rosenstock
I’ve been saying for years that I don’t believe in Hanukkah presents. They’re just something made up to make Jewish kids feel better during Christmas.
When my husband and I witnessed our daughter’s delight at seeing her cousin’s projector soother in motion (Yes, that’s the name of a toy for children. If you don’t know what this is, it is best described as a virtual mobile that lights up the ceiling with rotating fish or cartoon characters), he suggested we buy it for her for Hanukkah. What was I going to do, say no? My only alternative would be to suggest we buy it for her but specifically not give it to her on Hanukkah. This is fine when she’s 15 months old, but what about when she’s 15 years old? If I made a policy never to give my daughter Hanukkah gifts, as a young adult her therapist bills would start a competition with her student loans!
When the projector arrived two weeks before Hanukkah my husband was so excited he wanted to give it to her right away. What did I do? I said, “Wait, I thought it was for Hanukkah.” The pleasure I’m receiving from picking out and giving her a gift she will love, far outweighs any philosophical issue I have with the “tradition” of Hanukkah gift giving.
According to Dr. Dianne C. Ashton, author of the upcoming book, “The American Hanukkah,” I’m correct – Hanukkah gift giving was created to make Jewish kids feel better. Well, I don’t know if that’s why it was created, the history is a bit unclear on that point, but I do know that that’s why it was encouraged. .
For all of the parents struggling to maintain a non-consumer, non-competition to Christmas spirit for Hanukkah, you would have had to be a parent in the 1950’s to experience true guilt over your children’s feelings of inadequacy around Christmas.
According to Ashton, “One of the things that happens after World War II in the 1950s in the U.S. is that Jewish child psychologists start writing about how to keep Jewish kids psychologically healthy during Christmas and they start promoting gifts. Rabbis in the 50s start promoting gifts. People were really concerned about Jewish children being happy to remain Jewish in December, especially post-Holocaust when Judaism must have seemed negative in a lot of ways. ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ People were trying to find ways to make Jewish kids happy to be Jewish.”
It’s my observation and experience that Jews who observe numerous Jewish holidays all year round don’t feel the need to make a big deal out of Hanukkah gifts. Specifically, they often resist the idea that “observing” Hanukkah means giving children a gift each night for all eight nights of the festival. The real observation of Hanukkah involves commemorating freedom, adding special prayers to the daily services, lighting candles on the Menorah each night, the important and meaningful custom of eating jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot), and the equally pious practice of playing the dreidel game that involves gambling with real or chocolate coins (gelt).
In this era of the “National Menorah,” lit adjacent to the White House, I hope that little Jewish children no longer have to be consoled about missing out on Christmas. Even the senior Senator from Utah, Mormon Orrin Hatch, is celebrating Hanukkah this year.
Natasha Rosenstock is a writer living in Potomac, Maryland