NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – Everyone knows there are eight nights of Hanukkah. But for young children and their parents, that means eight nights of gifts.
“It’s hard trying to redirect a 5-year-old to understand why we’re here, why the family’s getting together, what we’re doing, because I do feel like young kids just care about the presents, and that’s fine,” said Jen Swafford of Swampscott, whose son Nathan is eagerly awaiting eight nights of Legos, video games, and more. “That’s just young kids being young kids. But I think it’s important to let them know why families are getting together, and why we have these traditions.
“We light the menorah, and read Hanukkah stories so he understands the Jewish faith. We try to keep it simple and family-oriented,” said Swafford.
For centuries, Jews have observed Hanukkah, which celebrates the Maccabees’ revolt against the Seleucid Empire that led to rededicating the temple on the Temple Mount in about 165 BCE. But it was not until the 20th century in America that the holiday became commonly associated with gift-giving.
According to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, gift-giving did not occur until Christmas became a national holiday in the United States in 1870. Because Hanukkah fell during the same time of year, Jewish parents – especially after World War II – began giving their children eight nights worth of gifts so that they would not feel like they were missing out.
Christmas envy among Jewish children still exists today, but local parents are trying to minimize it. “We fully understand that [Hanukkah] is an answer to the commercialization of Christmas,” said Renee Sidman of Marblehead, who has two sons: Caleb, 10, and Micah, 6. “It’s a conversation we have to have with our kids about how [Christmas] is not for us. We celebrate Hanukkah, which has its own joys.”
In addition to gifts, young children enjoy many of the unique Hanukkah traditions. “They get excited about lighting candles, they get excited about singing songs,” said Jessie Stephens of Swampscott about her two children, Leo, 6, and Ruthie, 5. “Each night we do a different activity – one night we make latkes, another we write sweet notes to each other.”
Jewish parents often give their children one small present each night, capped off by a major present, a tradition they recall from their own childhoods. “Usually our parents would give us one present a night, and they were fairly small,” said Stephens. “We’ll try to do one bigger, more exciting gift, and then some smaller things. But [the kids] are still at the age where socks are exciting. They’re living in a world of wonder.”
This year, some of the bigger gifts include electronics, video games, and Lego sets. “Madden 2019 is all my son is talking about,” said Sidman, referring to the popular sports video game. “[He also wants] Nintendo Switch, and my little one wants Legos.”
Swafford’s son Nathan is interested in similar gifts. “For boys, it’s typically video games,” she said. “But he is really into Legos. So there’s different sets, different themes, different comic book characters, dinosaur Legos, so he would be happy as a clam if all he got were just Legos.”
More old-fashioned gifts remain popular among some kids. “My daughter loves getting books,” said Alex Shube of Marblehead, of her daughter, Jasmina, 12. “She specifically requested more books, and a bathrobe. She’s pretty easygoing.”
Sidman said sometimes her children forget the newest electronic fad after a little while, while staying attached to simpler gifts.
“Last year I did try to get them old-school board games to get them off screens,” she said. “I got them cuddly blankets, and literally threw them in my car, and it turned out to be their favorite presents.”
Some parents give their children experiences instead of material gifts. Shube and her daughter often go to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to watch movies accompanied by a live orchestra. Sidman takes her children to a fancy hotel in Boston for one night.
However, parents agreed that it is essential to remind their children that not everyone is fortunate enough to get gifts for eight nights. Sidman and her family buy gifts for children in need through an adopt-a-family program.
“We bring the kids to the stores to buy all of the things for other kids, so they understand that not every kid is as privileged as they are,” said Sidman. “We always try to buy a winter coat and snow pants to make sure that the kids understand that it’s more than just toys – some of the kids don’t even have a winter jacket. Taking them to the stores has changed the experience.”
Shube tries to bring out the same spirit in his daughter. “I think I’ve tried to instill good values in [Jasmina] that it’s not just for the presents,” he said. “Ever since she was little, we ask her friends to bring something for the animal shelter. She recognizes that other animals are less fortunate, and I think she’s appreciative of what she gets.”
“We definitely save our tzedakah, and we always donate to Toys for Tots,” said Swafford. “We are always donating [Nathan’s] clothes and toys that he doesn’t use to different types of children’s organizations. He does know that he’s very lucky – that he has a roof over his head, he has food in his belly, and that he has toys to play with, and unfortunately there are kids who don’t.”