Gift-giving isn’t a Chanukah tradition? Humbug
How my parental stand against an artificial custom caved
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
So many people, myself included, start out as great parents. Then they have kids and it all goes to hell.
Before mine arrived I could have dropped knowledge that would have put Dr. Spock to shame (if you think I mean Mr. Spock, you don’t have kids yet): Find alternative ways to quiet a baby instead of using habit-forming pacifiers; no TV until age 2, and even then only as an occasional treat; if they make the slightest peep, take them out of the sanctuary immediately, or better yet, leave them home until they’re ready to behave; and of course, you’re the boss, not the child.
It’s funny how your ideals go out the window as soon as that first kid shows up, when methods that sound good in theory are entirely untenable in practice.
I bring this up because for years I railed against the practice of giving presents on Chanukah. The so-called tradition comes from a desire to imitate the custom of exchanging gifts on the holiday’s seasonal neighbor, Christmas, not from any biblical or Talmudic source. While another attempted facsimile of a Christmas tradition, the Chanukah bush, survives only as a punchline, somehow gifts are as common as dipping challah in honey on Rosh HaShanah.
My family was no different, and when I was young I looked forward to Chanukah all year long, my imagination running wild with the possibilities of the new toys I would receive during eight nights of presents. It wasn’t until I was older, when my interest in girls and the car keys overtook the appeal of Lincoln Logs or a new Walkman (Google it millennials), that I told my parents we should dispense with such a silly, contrived practice. If they wanted a non-birthday opportunity to shower us with gifts, I suggested Purim, a holiday for which giving is central to our observance.
They didn’t listen, and I found it was easier to swallow my pride than turn down a mini-pool table or that MC Hammer album. But, I told myself as I inadvertently sunk the 8-ball for the third consecutive game with “You Can’t Touch This” blasting in the background, it would be different when I had a family of my own.
Decades later, now with a wife and two children, we give our kids presents every Chanukah. And not because of some spiritual awakening, in which I realized that the act of bequeathing my son a Ninjago action figure will bring me closer to God. It’s more practical: How can I deny my kids when virtually all of their friends, Jewish or not, are bragging about their massive haul?
This is when pre-kids Gabe would have told the current version to toughen up. “At some point they have to learn that life isn’t fair,” I would have said.
Now, besides that pompous blowhard not having any idea how difficult it is to console a devastated 6-year-old, I’m wary of my children resenting Judaism for making them miss out on having fun. Just last week my son’s friends went to the playground after school, but we had to go home to get ready for Shabbat; on said Shabbat, he couldn’t watch TV, plus he had to accompany me to the synagogue, where he’s often bored and can’t raise his voice above a whisper; and when my daughter asked if she could get a package of Starburst at the store we had to tell her it didn’t have a kosher symbol.
The most hurtful thing my son ever said to me — besides once when he said he wanted to root for the Yankees — was “I hate being Jewish.” He was upset about one of our many restrictions and responsibilities, and I don’t think he really meant it, but as a Jewish parent who deeply values our traditions, hearing that was hard to take. What would he have said had I told him that he wasn’t going to get any presents on Chanukah because it’s a bogus custom?
So yes, our family goes along with the masses and engages in this unsourced tradition. I don’t love it, but it’s a necessary evil, and we do our best to use the practice to impart our Jewish values.
On Sunday I took my daughter to the toy store and told her she needed to pick out a gift for her brother, and my wife did the same with my son later in the day. My wife and I will take turns bringing them to Target this weekend, as well, so they can “buy” presents for the two of us. Hopefully they’ll be proud to make others happy, and feel the joy that comes from a selfless act.
My wife also established our own Chanukah charity project, where our children go through their possessions and select gently used toys and drop them into one of the many toy donation boxes around town this time of year. And, of course, we take time to sit by the candles, talk about the Chanukah story, and play dreidel.
It’s not a perfect world, and I’m not a perfect parent (my wife, on the other hand, is pretty darn close). But in doing the best we can with what we have, hopefully our children will learn to appreciate the traditions we hold so dear. And perhaps one day, when they have kids of their own, they’ll build on what we’ve given them, and find a solution that will satisfy even the most self-righteous critic.