When I was in my early twenties, my sister had a son. My nephew was two or three years old when I visited them one year during what has come to be referred to as “The Holiday Season,” which is a euphemism for “The Season During Which the Dominant Religion (and Those Whose Families Once Affiliated With This Religion and Still Celebrate its Holidays) Try to Pretend That Having Christmas Trees in Public Buildings Does Not Violate the Separation of Church and State.” My visit happened to coincide with a minor Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. It is a tradition at this time of year to give small gifts to children, so I brought one along.
As is usual in the observance of Hanukkah, my sister was lighting her menorah every night for eight nights, adding one candle for each night. This is done to celebrate the miracle in which God supposedly allowed a group of violent religious fundamentalists, known as the Maccabees, eight nights of light for the price of one night of oil. She was also giving her son a gift each night, spreading out the gifts from all the relatives over the eight nights of the holiday.
I was completely taken aback. Partly this was because my sister has never been much of one for religion. But partly it was because I had never before been in a house where gifts were given on all eight nights. In our aunt’s house, where we lived for the second half of our childhood, gifts were all opened on the first night. The family gathered in the den, surrounded by mounds of presents, and we each took turns opening gifts. In twenty-eight minutes, there was wrapping paper everywhere and each of us had his or her gifts for the season.
I assumed this was the way the holiday was celebrated in all families. I figured that in the modern world, families were too busy to celebrate each and every night and that we were doing pretty darned well by at least remembering to light the candles every night. So, when I saw my sister doing it the old-fashioned way, I was a bit awestruck.
Over the years, my attitude towards this practice has evolved. We, too, celebrate each night. There are no gifts the first night, as we give to charity instead for that one evening. The rest of the nights, there are gifts, spreading out any from other relatives plus a few from us over the eight nights. My friend, Caroline, once told me about a family that shares experiences each night: games, ice cream, whatnot. I like that, too, but this really is the only time, other than their birthdays, that our children get new toys from their parents, and unlike the Maccabees, we are not zealots.
To me now, the idea of opening a whole slew of gifts on the first night is a bit grotesque. It smacks of consumerism rather than meaning. It debases the participants because it really has nothing to do with the holiday and everything to do with getting new stuff, which is ugly. But, more than that, it is about Christmas.
To me, a Jewish household that has a single big night of gift-giving is aping Christianity. This practice is akin to Jewish households that have Hanukkah Bushes. I am not, of course, referring to mixed-faith households, in which each religion is recognized. But ours is a fully Jewish household, and if we were to try to pretend Hanukkah is Christmas, it would feel a bit too uncomfortably like a certain famous Harriet Beecher Stowe character.
I suspect that, as our kids get older, we will not celebrate every night together, just as we won’t have Shabbat dinner as a family every week. But, I do hope we are wise enough to recognize that we are simply outgrowing a practice that is mostly for the kids and scale back, rather than giving a lot of gifts at once. I hope we are all comfortable enough with our own heritage to not need to leech the trappings of someone else’s, a practice that treats Christmas and Hanukkah as though they are only about greed.
Because, as everyone knows, the best part of Hanukkah is not the presents, the lights, the dreidels, or even the gold coin chocolates. It goes without saying that it’s all about the doughnuts.