Last week a group of parents from my synagogue’s religious school gathered in my office with an important question about Hanukkah: How, they asked, can we make Hanukkah about more than just presents for our children?
For many parents, this is the key question–not the true meaning of Hanukkah, not how you light the candles, not even where you can find Tickle Me Elmo TMX. The fact is that for decades American Jews built up Hanukkah as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. and now we are victims of our own success.
Many school wintertime pageants feature a nominal Hanukkah “carol” along with the more numerous (and better) Christmas ones, Hanukkah decorations festoon the mall, and Hanukkah gift cards are available adjacent to the Christmas gift cards at the local Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond. This is progress?
In one manner of speaking, yes. Concerned about assimilation in the face of Christmas’ allure, American Jews have successfully positioned Hanukkah as a legitimate alternative (turning it in the process from a minor festival into one of the biggest holidays on many Jewish families’ calendar). If Hanukkah is a holiday about standing firm against the temptations of assimilation–as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz asserts–then at one level, we have succeeded. At another level, of course, we’ve failed miserably. The Christmas against which Hanukkah was competing wasn’t the birth-of-Jesus version, but rather the how-many-gifts-can-we-stuff-under-the-tree version, so now Hanukkah is subject to the same materialism and excesses that my friends who are Christian clergy habitually bewail about Christmas this time of year.
Don’t get me wrong–presents are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with giving and getting them. But Christmas and Hanukkah are about more than gifts.
In my office, parents shared various ideas for connecting their children to a deeper message for Hanukkah–from giving tzedakah (charitable donations) each night when lighting the candles, to sharing nightly readings such as those created by Mazon that focus us on those in need, to planning family celebrations that don’t center around swapping gifts, to having each child light his or her own Hanukkiah to proclaim the miracle, to telling the story of hope growing in the darkness.
Ultimately, Hanukkah is about spreading light, and perhaps we can find additional ways to inject this message into our celebration this year. So long as Hanukkah’s main raison d’être remains to be an alternative gift-giving festival to Christmas, it’s all going to be about the Elmos.