Growing up, whenever one of my friends found out that I’m Jewish, I heard alot of this kind of thing: “Whoa! You get EIGHT NIGHTS of gifts at Hanukkah! That’s so cool!” I have always been slightly annoyed by this, for a couple of reasons that changed as I got older.
First, from my point of view as a young Jewish girl, the idea of Christmas gifts was just totally better than Hanukkah gifts, hands down. Who could think that eight nights of gifts in a row could top the excitement of running down the stairs in your footie pajamas, seeing the motherlode sitting under a gorgeous tree festooned with tinsel and beautiful ornaments? (It’s always greener on the other side, I guess!)
As I became an adult and a parent and then a religious school teacher, it became clear to me that, like Christmas, Hanukkah has become “about the gifts” for many, many people, which waters down its religious significance.
This is where I have to tell you (because so many non-Jews don’t know) that Hanukkah is actually, though important, a very minor holiday in the grand scheme of things, Judaism-wise. I am pretty sure that Hanukkah is given a higher level of importance than it really is because:
1. It occurs close to Christmas
2. The Jewish kids feel better, like maybe they’re not missing out on anything that their Christian friends get
3. People don’t understand the holiday and just go back to what they learned about it as children (See “eight days of gifts”, above)
The gift connection with Christmas, though blown completely out of proportion in a material world, comes from the part of the Christmas story where the three Magi brought gifts to the Baby Jesus, but I’m probably not telling most of you anything new with that one. It makes sense though, right?
Magi & gifts —-> Baby Jesus
(I’m doing *all I can* to NOT insert a clip of Will Ferrell in “Talladega Nights” praying to Baby Jesus.) (Oh, what the hell. Here it is.)
Modern day Christians & gifts —-> Each other
As far as Hanukkah goes, the actual tradition was to give Hanukkah gelt (money) as a reward for learning about the teachings contained in the Torah, because when the Greeks (under King Antiochus) destroyed the Temple (to read more of the Hanukkah story, click here), it became necessary to reteach the children who came after that time, and it continued on from there. Over time, that tradition (incentives for education!) changed over for many people to a Christmas-style gift bonanza.
In my family, we do give gifts but on one or two nights in lieu of them, we go out to a movie, bowling or some other family activity that takes the emphasis off “getting stuff” and puts it on “spending time together”.
So, there you have it! And just for kicks, I’ve included a snippet from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch from the ’80’s, “Hanukkah Harry Saves Christmas”, which will demonstrate that, if nothing else, Jews are practical.