Ask a Jewish kid what their favorite holiday is, and most will tell you Chanukah. And it’s not surprising. After all, who wouldn’t like a holiday where you receive gifts?
A teacher of mine used to try and trick b’nei mitzvah students by asking this same question. When they answered Chanukah, he would say, “Don’t you like the holiday where they give gifts?” After momentarily enjoying their confusion, my teacher would explain that traditionally, Jews gave each other gifts on Purim. In the Book of Esther, Purim is described partly as “an occasion for giving gifts to one another.” In Israel, Rosh Hashanah and Passover are bigger gift-giving times than Chanukah.
In the United States, the custom of Chanukah gifts has, of course, expanded as a result of Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas and the ongoing commercialization of both holidays.
Despite the lack of a long or meaningful connection between Chanukah and gift-giving, I am not suggesting that we forgo this practice. After all, every Jewish holiday has evolved over time and across geography to reflect the contexts of the Jews who celebrate them.
Acknowledging this truth may leave us feeling obligated to participate in the exchange of Chanukah gifts, but it also leaves us free to infuse our Chanukah celebrations with new traditions and meanings which reflect our current reality. What brings us meaning? How do we want to expend our energy? With whom do we want to spend our time? What actions convey our values?
Below is a list of eight ways to focus a single night of Chanukah on a different theme. Perhaps one or two of these suggestions might nourish your soul this Chanukah in a different way than a gift.
- Tell the Story: Spend an evening focused on the story of Chanukah. There are books, websites and movies for every age that explore different angles of Chanukah.
- Gift your Time: Instead of physical presents, set aside a night where people gift their time or talents (mowing the lawn, helping with homework, sharing a recipe).
- Tzedakah Night: After lighting the candles, hold a family meeting to decide where to give tzedakah. Depending on the age of the participants, give time to research causes and organizations.
- Share Chanukah: Invite over neighbors or friends who have never experienced Chanukah and share your favorite parts.
- Connect to Israel: Reinforce your connection to Israel by learning more about Chanukah traditions there. Or put the money you might have spent on gifts in an account for a future trip to Israel.
- Zoom Lighting: We may all be tired of Zoom meetings, but a screen filled with the light of candles from across the country is hard to resist.
- Group Activity: Choose one night where the gift is an activity or outing to do together.
- Device Free Evening: Although Jewish law does not prohibit the use of electricity on Chanukah, commit to an evening free of devices and see what creativity unfolds.