Whenever I do a google search, it always fascinates me to see what pops up as a suggestion from the almighty mind-reading google. Try it, you might well be scandalized. Stop midway into your search words and see what google thinks you want to know. In any event, I typed in "why give gifts on" and the first return was "why give gifts on Christmas." The second was "why give gifts on hanukkah" (I spelled it how they did. Oy, that holiday of too many spellings).
This is weirdness enough, in my mind.
Okay, so let's begin our little comparative religion lesson. According to my vast knowledge of Christianity (not) the reason people give gifts on Christmas is because the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus, and bore gifts. Also, to demonstrate the belief that Jesus is a gift from God. Now, whatever your beliefs may be about Jesus, this correlates. Kindly bear in mind that, irrespective of a popular song, typically one (1) night of Christmas is celebrated, and hence one (1) gift per giver per recipient.
Unless you count stockings.
Movin' right along here to Judaism.
According to my knowledge of Judaism, we give gifts on Chanukah because, um, because, um, we don't. There does exist a legitimate custom to give "gelt" - Yiddish for "cash." No set amount, no rule to give each night. There are a few reasons offered for this custom, and here is one that I remember learning as a child:
The Hebrew word Chanukah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” The occupying Greek forces were determined to force Hellenism upon the Jewish population, at the expense of the ideals and commandments of the holy Torah. Unfortunately, they were quite successful in their endeavor. After the Greeks were defeated, it was necessary to re-educate the Jews—to reintroduce a large part of the population to Torah values. Appropriately, during Chanukah it is customary to give gelt to children as a reward for Torah study.(courtesy of Chabad.org)Interestingly, there is also a popular custom to reward and thank those who teach your children Torah during this time.
In any event, it would seem to me that distribution of "Chanukah gifts" is a tradition that has been borrowed from the Christmas season. The gift-giving has crept into even the most religious circles. But I, Chanu-scrooge, will not buy into it (<------ get it?). Firstly, I'm a pretty sourcy girl. I like to know where things are written, what they mean in the original, and do things mindfully. Second, the commercial spirit is bad enough all year without totally capitulating now, of all times, when we are celebrating a holiday that's all about the triumph of spirituality over materialism.
Thirdly, has anyone noticed that Chanukah is 8 days long? That's a lot of gifting, even if you just do "small" gifts.
So what to do if you too, don't believe in all the Chanukah gifting (and if you do, wonderful! Enjoy.) when lots of your kids' friends are getting Chanukah gifts, some large and some small; some just the first night and some all eight nights??
Answer #1: stand your ground.
Answer #2: stand your ground.
Answer #3: create a Chanukah ritual that is fun, and still is consistent with your Chanukah instincts.
Here's what we do.
1. Every night of Chanukah is made special in some way. Aside from the festive candle-lighting, singing, and dancing. One night I might make latkes. Another night I buy donuts. Another night we might go over to my in-laws for a Chanukah party. Or we'll play dreidel.
2. One night, we do the "gelt ladle." Apparently, my husband experienced this once as a child. His teacher at the Hebrew Academy hosted a Chanukah party at his home, and there was a large bowl full of change. Each kid was allowed to scoop up a ladle-full of change and keep it. My husband introduced this fun little gelt-distribution to our kids, which is almost as much fun as having your paycheck direct-deposited into your bank account. The kids love it! It's not so much money, but it's experientially delicious.
3. We are very blessed in that my kids have lots of grandparents and even great-grandparents, all of whom send my kids gelt. Some goes to tzedeka and a small amount to savings, and then each kid gets to spend his gelt. Some years, my kids have pooled their gelt (after thank-you notes are duly dispatched, of course) to buy some communal goodie like a basketball hoop or a Wii. Other years, they go solo.
4. We've created our own custom and it's really fun. Each member of the family, parents included, writes down some kind of reward or privilege that they want on a paper. For example: miss a half-day of school, dinner with mom, a day with no chores, gift card for $10. In case you are wondering, mine were a Sunday afternoon all to myself, and an evening where everyone handles their own dinner (vacation-minded much?).
So each member of the family writes down two, each on its own paper. We fold all the papers and put them in a little bowl, and then we go around and everyone chooses. It's hilarious to see each person pick out things that are totally incongruous (my husband picked out "double screen time"). After everyone chooses, each person can make one trade, so the campaigning and lobbying ensues. It's our little way of giving our kids stuff, where most of it is privilege or time with us as opposed to "stuff." And the game itself is really fun family time.
These are some ideas we've had to make Chanukah feel both fun and authentic for us.
What about you?