It’s the conversation piece in every classroom: “So, what did you get for Chanuka?” Some families give large gifts, some give small ones, some give one gift for each night of Chanuka, some give one for the Chag. Whatever the case, it seems like it has become the custom for many families to give gifts on Chanuka.
There are those who claim that this custom is similar to the minhag of giving gelt. Others attribute this custom to mimicking Christmas, gifting in order to combat “tree envy”. At a time when Christmas decorations and music are everywhere, we want our kids to be excited about our holiday too and the best way to do it, is with presents.
While I understand the rationale behind this practice, I do not buy my children presents for Chanuka. With all the beautiful mitzvot, themes and customs of Chanuka, it bothers me to hear kids talk about looking forward to Chanuka because of what gift they will receive. Rather than enhancing the holiday, I sometimes wonder if gift-wrapped packages overshadow Chanuka’s true identity.
So instead of giving my children items that are expensive or which will lose luster after a few days (if not hours), I give my children a different kind of gift for Chanuka, which is something I learned in my home growing up and which I am now passing onto my children.
I give them the gift of my time. Because in truth, more than the greatest and most expensive presents, our children want our presence.
In our busy worlds of juggling all that we do- working, errands, multiple children’s needs, etc., we are often exhausted by the end of the day (or at least, I am). While I would love to give my kids my full patience, energy and warmth every day, the reality is that by the day’s end, there just isn’t as much energy in my reservoir as I would like.
But for the time that the candles are burning on the eight nights of Chanuka, I try to be fully present with my family. Instead of sharing pictures of our family lighting the candles on facebook, I try to simply enjoy the moment. There is no rush as we sing all of the stanzas of Maoz Tzur, as our kids point out key words from each paragraph representing different stories in Jewish History that are being discussed. We talk about all of the times that Jewish people have faced destruction, isolation and mockery and then through miracles, we were saved- and we talk about personal miracles we have seen on Chanuka. Last year, we lit the candles awash with disappointment when the U.S. President abstained from a UN vote on Jerusalem; this year the U.S. President recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A close friend for whom I’ve been davening for many years got engaged on the first night of Chanuka. As my kids and I danced and sang “Od Yeshama” after Maoz Tzur with tears of happiness in my eyes, I wondered how one could possibly say that miracles don’t happen today?
We revel in each car that passes by, allowing us to fulfill the mitzvah of pirsumei nissah– publicizing the miracle. We stand by our candles, not with a sense of shame of being different from all of our neighbors but with a special pride in being Jewish.
Although I am utterly undomestic, I make latkas with my kids- ones that are burnt on the outside and raw on the inside- and despite their being quite imperfect, my kids are delighted and eat every last one. There is one night reserved for dreidel, another night for a family movie and other nights for Chanuka events in the community. My smartphone is noticeably absent.
Each night, as we make the brachot about the miracles of old, I have the presence of mind to recognize the four miracles standing beside me, who represent the future.
Despite the lack of presents, my kids become aglow when they talk about Chanuka, about the family time and the lighting of the candles. Some members of our families do send my kids small gifts but when my children reflect on Chanuka, the gifts barely enter their memory; they remember the time spent together.
And in this selfie generation, during a season that is sometimes plagued by the “gimmes”, I hope I am teaching my kids what is real in life and that sometimes the most meaningful gift we can give or receive is our time.