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It’s Beginning to Look Alot Like Hanukkah

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.

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posted December 14, 2006 at 2:57 am

We should make a habit of giving (particularly to boys since they would like it best) hammers as a symbol of the Maccabees. To make it even more relevant to our age we should not only talk about what the brave Maccabees did to the Greek-Syrians but also to Jews who were not as religious as they should have been. Hopefully this would inspire the young

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posted December 15, 2006 at 12:54 am

But try telling Christians that were it not for hannukah, they would not hava holiday to celebrate. Its Historical fact that the revolt/jewish Civil war that became hannukah led(indirectly) to the Roman Conquest of Israel, and to the eventaulness of their Holiday.

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Julie in Memphis

posted December 21, 2006 at 6:45 pm

I always try to remind my children (now grown, but still learning) that giving your time to someone is a wonderful gift and usually much more of a sacrifice than some gadget. Also, to give at least one gift anonymously or to someone who cannot benefit you in any tangible way. It is not true giving if it is measured by the return on the gift. And last, to give knowledge to someone that will help them further themselves. One of my sons tutors prisoners for their GEDs, to help them move beyond the idea that they cannot learn and prosper. I volunteer at an elementary school before work or on my lunch hour. I encourage anyone who gets the holiday blues to reach out; volunteering will change your perspective.

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alberto fraga

posted December 30, 2006 at 5:03 pm

Carter was a President but not a decisive one, I am from Cuba and I have the opinion that he wants to have things in a peacefull way and sometimes the policy is not that, he lost his reelection to President Reagan and now he want to compare the struggle of Israel like apartheid. In Cuba he wanted to find the way to erode that sistem with peacefull measure and at the end he lost the oportunity with a dictator like Fidel Castro that he can deal with democrats easily, so I hope the existense of Israel is going to be because the nation of Jewish, Christian-Jewish and the hole Cristianity is at theire side. I think the future belongs to democracy and I hope next year it would be a better year. Alberto Fraga

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