Friday, November 29, 2013


I know, I know.  It's Thanksgivukkah and menurkey, not Chanu-scrooge.  Whatevs.

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
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?



  1. I'm trying to figure out that last one. Say you get a half day off school and something else that does you no good at all. You trade one for a day with no chores (haha -- but does someone else do them for you?) and you're stuck with the other one?

    1. Yup. It's like that game show "Let's Make a Deal." Ya win some, ya lose some.

  2. I'm not sure I see a huge difference between giving gelt as a reward for Torah study and giving actual gifts. Back in the day, they simply didn't have toys the way we do now and money is no less materialistic than gifts. I think your financial objections make a lot of sense, but for people that can afford it, I don't see why not. We give our children small gifts and gifts with religious significance. (This year they all wanted new Menorahs and we were happy to get rid of all the wobbily, cumbersome school-made gifts! So that was the first night gift! I think your ideas for making each night special are great, just sounds like it's more to keep the cost down.
    While it sounds more educational and surely engenders sibling cooperation, is there really such a difference between pooling money you we're given to buy a Wii and someone just giving you the Wii? Either way, you got a Wii for Chanukah!

    Additionally, we buy our children something new for all of the religious holidays - board games, clothes, books, accessories - so for us, Chanukah isn't any different. It makes the holiday more exciting and special.

    Just my thoughts, but I do like your gift giving ideas and will definitely be trying some of them out! Thanks!

    1. Hi Ranya,
      Welcome to the comment section :)
      So I was thinking about your point while writing the post: what really is the difference between money and gifts?

      I think giving out money does cut down on some of the drooling/expectations that some kids get into this time of year, and the pressure parents feel as to what "everyone" is getting or doing, or advertising. The amount is small: $10 per kid from each grandparent. But apart from that it feels more in line with the original custom.

      All that said, I think some families are gifting in a very Jewish way and both they and their kids derive pleasure and joy from the ritual. I have no problem with this. I personally do not want to feel obligated to buy all my kids gifts.

      We do buy the kids gifts for the three major holidays (Pesach, Sukkos, and Shavuot) since those are termed seasons of joy in the Torah. Each child will get a new bling, book, or game to enjoy specifically over the holiday.

    2. I definitely hear your issues with the consumerism aspect of gifting. That's why I feel like I'm still "standing my ground" with the gifts we give. This year I went to the store Five Below to buy most of their gifts. Not only is everything, obviously, $5 or less, but they also had a program for a week where they gave 10% of my purchase price to our school. And my kids love the gifts! Tonight I had three girls sliding around my dining room in their new fuzzy socks, shrieking about how warm and cozy they are. Shrieking. Literally. Do they want an iPod? Of course. But they have no expectations of us giving it to them for Chanukah (or ever really - my husband tells them their husbands will have to buy it for them ;)

      By the way, did you see what Local Jewish News posted about the permissibility of gift giving on Chanukah?

    3. That's so cute. I did see that, and couldn't really understand all of it...

  3. Our families are both quite secular, and attempts to add 'religious' meaning to holidays has to be gentle and in small doses. So, there is no avoiding the gift part of Chanukah for them. Their wish list is filled with constructive/long-term toys - like legos, magna-tiles, and books, and things that get consumed - like markers, play-doh, and art supplies. My hope is that the gifts add value to their day, and avoid the flashy/trendy/short-term stuff.

    I also try to schedule something most nights so the holiday becomes a fun time with friends and family (like Sukkot) rather than have an expectation to open a gift every night. If we are at home, I give them a book/puzzle/game that we can do as a family.

    My oldest one just started public school with only a handful of Jewish kids, so it will be interesting to watch his reaction to the xmas season.

    I like your idea of doing gifts for Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot - think I'll try that this year.

    Thank you - love your blog and the insights you bring. Chag Sameach!

    1. jennie, some of my relatives also give my kids gifts. I am okay with this! They are in moderation too, and I think my kids "get" that it's not a message I'M sending, but I'm happy for them to receive fun things. Thanks for your warm words and for joining the conversation. Chag Sameach!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this, Ruchi! This was something my family really struggled with after I decided to convert, but I was determined to do Answers 1 & 2. :) Funnily enough, I never shared the same enthusiasm for Xmas as my mom and sister (who start shopping and listening to the music in summer, no joke), and I never once had a tree of my own in my years of living away from my parents' home. When I found Judaism, it felt very natural to ignore Xmas altogether, and I personally experience more "magic" when I light the menorah than with any Xmas ritual I ever did. Overall, it resonates very strongly with me to commemorate the Jews' victory over assimilation by resisting any kind of foreign tradition and keeping Chanukah pure. And I plan on giving my children enough "just because" presents throughout the year to make them shrug at Xmas. As a final note, can all of us Jewish parents/parents-to-be take a moment to appreciate that our kids do not/will not wake us up at 5 AM to open presents? :)

  5. I use Chanukah as a way to give "gifts" that are really just useful stuff that everyone needs. Everyone gets a nice new pair of socks one night. The family gets a new printer we've needed on another night. Kids get fresh new erasers another night. The new dishrack we have been needing (things always falling out of our semi-broken one) is not going to be popular with kids, but we need it and it's fun to open a big wrapped box.

    And I guess Ruchi in her milieu wouldn't have this problem, but some Jewish relatives send gifts for Chanukah, so those get opened, one per kid per night.

    This year when I took out our meager supply of Chanukah decorations, the kids wanted to know how dreidel actually is played. I looked up the rules, dug out a pile of pennies, and they were totally enthusiastic. We then somehow got a huge inflatable dreidel, and the kids are loving it, you can play dreidel like it is a beach ball, so it's an outdoor sport with lots of moving around and throwing.

    1. For me, I'd rather get those "just because" during the year - and that answers your question below, Rachel - then get them at Chanukah. And re dreidel, I'm always amazed how fun it is. It seems on paper like pretty much a boring game.

  6. I can SO relate to this!

    We don't actually know how many wise men there were that visited Jesus; the text only tells us there were 3 gifts. Plus, in the Christian Calender, Christmas actually runs for 12 days, from Christmas to Epiphany (the celebration of the day the magi/wise men arrived). But most Christians have no clue about that--most are very ignorant about the Christian calendar. Some don't even know it exists. In recent years, I've been very grinchy about Christmas and all the consumerism that goes along with it. We don't get our kids many presents, and have started trying to get them to understand helping others by doing Operation Christmas Child. It's kind of working as my 6 year old helped pay for some of the OCC stuff with what was left on a gift card he had. We do a tree, but don't put it up until very close to Christmas. Reading your post, though, kind of made me think that it would be good to find different ways of celebrating the actual 12-day Christmas season & maybe limit the gifts to 3 per kid or something. I don't know. Despite how many Christians say "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" a lot of us still buy into the commercialism and decorating and Santa Claus...we just slap the name Jesus on it to make it all right. :/

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Kelly. I didn't know there was a Christian calendar at all. How is that disseminated? Do churches give it out or is it published somewhere? Is it lunar/solar or both? Love the idea of having KIDS give with their time and money and teaching them about "the spirit of giving" by giving givers themselves. I am definitely going to try to incorporate this more.

    2. Though I don't want to answer for Kelly, I think the Christian calendar is based on the usual Gregorian calendar but includes many saints' days and other days of religious significance that the nonobservant public is unfamiliar with.

    3. The depends on what church you belong to. Orthodox churches follow another calendar than Roman Catholics (I cannot speak for Protestants, sorry guys) - while the Orthodox churches of the east still use the old Julian calendar while Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar; you can find infos on Wikipedia). Even saints' days differ in these calendars. Besides, the Christian religious calendar is subdivided into liturgical times with different meanings, liturgical colours, hymns, and themes. A halleluja is forbidden during Lent, for example. A few more infos on the liturgical year can be found here: I hope that helps. ;)

    4. I have to admit, I'm a little fuzzy on it because it's been a long time since I went to a more liturgical church.

      We are actually just starting the Christian year right now, with Advent. After Advent is Christmas, then Epiphany, then ... well, let me get a link!

      It's really too bad that a majority of Christians ignore it (myself included, to be honest) because I think it could really be more meaningful to think about these times of the year and what they mean and maybe even celebrate more than just Christmas or Easter since those two are more known for Santa & the Easter Bunny anyway!

  7. Oh my gosh, gelt ladle! What an idea! I also like #4. Kind of like Jennie, our family gets us presents and we don't say no to them. But good for you for being able to stand your ground! Happy Chanukah!

  8. As far as Christmas presents are concerned, I have no idea how it works in the US, but the diversity of customs in different regions of Europe makes me think that it's not religion-based at all - I guess people just like the idea of giving something (and getting something) once a year, guaranteed. In Spain kids only get presents on Epiphany (but to make it even more complicated, Epiphany is always on Jan. 6th in some countries, and always on the 1st Sunday of January in others). In other countries children get gifts on Dec. 6th, the St.Nicholas Day (who is the basis for Santa Claus). In some countries they get the gifts on the 24th of December, and in others on the 25th. And traditionally it was material gifts or money both.

    Also, I may venture a guess that presents replaced money because as Ranya said, it used to be more difficult to find gifts. But also, because I think that many people don't want to consider the cash value of a present. If you give $10, then it's only worth $10. If it's a gift, it doesn't matter (and it isn't known) that maybe it has only cost $3, if it's a great find. And what about presents you crafted yourself? I think there is little potential for emotional investment in giving $10, whereas you can put so much thought into the tiniest present that will bring so much joy.

    Granted, if you have to figure out thoughtful gifts for 8 kids times 8 nights, then you (me, anybody in their right mind) would prefer to go with gelt. But my point is that I understand why people may prefer to give presents instead of cash, and I also don't really believe that it's under any influence of Christian traditions - I think in every culture there is a designated "gift-giving moment" - Muslims give children cash at end of Ramadan, Japanese give presents for the New Year etc.

    1. Interesting, W. I would actually reject the idea that money was given instead of gifts because it used to be difficult. The Talmud recommends various gift options for the three major holidays (meat and wine for men; jewelry and clothing for women; sweets for kids) and also suggest bribing kids with almonds for Torah study (good luck with that today).

      Also, if the reason for "gelt" is to motivate kids to study Torah, it's not really to show your love per se, but to motivate. Cash is a great motivator.

      The Christian influence is definitely apparent here in the US, where Christmas is not just a religious holiday, but a national and legal one, and the whole country swings into "gift" mode.

  9. We give gifts on December 5 in the evening, Sinterklaas. The last years we make one of the gifts a "lootjesgift", like your pieces of paper in a bowl. You give the person on the paper a small gift and you have to make a poem to go with it. We don't do "surprises", special wrapping . Since the children are no longer small we skipt also the shoe-setting . Maximum off 5 presents each, maximum 50 euro total each.
    I love your blog, sorry for my poor english I,m not used to write in another language as my own (Dutch)

  10. Ruchi, when do you give your kids the big ticket items you want them to have ( e.g. bike, Lego, nice doll, etc.)? Birthdays? Just stam? Or yom tov?

  11. Kate, you make me laugh! Thanks for this great perspective.

  12. memvan, thanks so much for commenting. What religion do you practice?

    1. christian protestant ( in the Netherlands PKN and in Belgium VPKB). Mem is the frisian word for mother. Van means of. So memvan7 means mother of 7 (ages 14 til 23)

    2. The oldest was almost 10 and number3 and 4 are twins.


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