Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Creating Monsters in Eight Nights - Chanukah and Gifts?

IMG_6384So, here's the scoop.
I always said I would never give my kids Chanukah presents.  "Purim is the Jewish season for gift-giving!" I would proclaim, "And not Chanukah!"

And then I had kids.  And they are soooo cute (see sidebar.)  And I want to make them happy.  And I want to give them things that will put smiles on their little faces.

So I started picking up things, here and there, that I could give them for Chanukah.  Token things, little things.  A set of plastic animals found in the clearanced dollar section at Target.  An "egg" that dissolves in the bathtub to reveal a tiny toy dinosaur.  Gelt.  Sweet little jungle-animal hand puppets I snagged at Costco for $2 apiece. 

My mom, bless her, loaded the kids up with Chanukah gifts as well.  Again, nothing big-deal or crazy-expensive; a new box of markers and a coloring book.  Sweet wintertime window clings.  A Shalom Sesame DVD.  A dinosaur board book.  A Lego set. 

And so it was that we ended up with more than one present for each night.  By the third night of Chanukah, the boys started to peer into their bags for the next present almost as soon as they had gotten the first one.  Uh oh.

But!  I was excited for the fifth night of Chanukah.  The fifth night of Chanukah, I tell everyone, is a magical night.  A Chasidic custom teaches that this night is special, because it's the first night of Chanukah where there is more light than darkness amongst the candle spaces.  The fifth night, being so close to a new moon, is always one of the darkest nights of the year, even moreso because it can never fall on Shabbat.  The fifth night teaches that we must bring light even into a world of great, seemingly insurmountable darkness.  We are the candles, etc. etc.

Gorgeous.  So I decided long ago that this would mean in our house that we get out and do something positive for someone or some cause on the fifth night.  The local Kollel was throwing a Chanukah party for some kids and the residents of our Jewish retirement village.  Exactly what we needed - low key and awesome. 

I explained to the kids (well, Asher) that there were lots of Sabas and Savtas (grandparents) who don't get to see their grandchildren, and that we could go talk with them and show them our favorite toys and wish them a Happy Chanukah and that it would help them feel happier and maybe not so sad about missing their grandchildren. 
And that doing that would be our Chanukah present for that night. 

I thought they Got It, you guys.  I really did.
So we drove home, all the while talking about our fifth night mitzvah, and I was full of the warm fuzzies.  I fed my angels dinner and then we arranged our candles in the chanukiah.  Asher lit his own and my heart swelled with pride.  We finished singing the blessings.  Then he turned his sweet little face to me and asked, "Can we do Chanukah now?"
 It took me a second to realize it, but in just four nights of modest gift-giving Asher had begun to equate "doing Chanukah" with "getting gifts."
Oy oy oy oy oy oy OY.

So my first reaction is to put the kibosh on Chanukah presents, right?  So all the other little tchotchkes I had picked up went straight into the gift bin (thanks Mara, you frugal genius).  But obviously the gifts Savta had sent still needed to be distributed, and then there were the Chucks.  I got a pair of gloriously cute Chucks on super clearance on cyber Monday (we're talking $12 a pair, for shoes my boychiks needed anyway).  And because I am a supercool Ima, I bought a cheap pack of shoelace charms that blink when you move.  And I strung them on, and put the shoes back in their boxes, and you could see the charms blinking from the outside of the box you guys, it was so so cool!

So last night, the sixth night, I made a big production out of how tonight's gift was so so awesome.  And I gave the shoes to the boys.  And they looked at them.  And they stomped around a little bit.  And then Asher looked me straight and the eye and said, "What else is in the bag?"


Now, I know what you're thinking.  "Those children are so spoiled!" "Don't you teach those mini menschen their manners?"
Dear readers, I promise you - we make these children say "thank you" for everything.  Even their milk with breakfast.  We say brachas before we eat our food and talk about gratitude-related things all the time.  They have to say "thank you" to their teachers before they leave preschool for the day.
I feel so deflated.

So, what's an Ima to do?

I already said "no" to any more Chanukah presents.  And I'm going to have Asher take the remaining gelt and give it as gifts to his preschool.  But I feel like I've created a monster in three years and four nights.  What would you do?  No Chanukah presents anymore?  Only on the eighth night?  Do you think the children will  be somehow damaged?  By which decision?


  1. Oh, Leigh Ann, no, no, you are not creating monsters. It's simply not possible for the same ima who wrote the above post (every bit of which rings with love, honesty, humor, gratitude) to do so. Even if kids react to the presents - and they're little, who could expect otherwise? - I don't think it drowns out those much more powerful messages you're sending.

    I personally did not grow up getting gifts for Chanukkah or any chag really, except for an "afikoman surprise." I feel the way you do, that Chanukkah should not be about gifts and is not really a Jewish time for gift-giving. So...it's not part of the ritual at our house, BUT...it is in my husband's family. When we visit his family, my son gets presents. Last year my husband bought him something to give, this year not. I don't think it has to be absolute. You can always take gift-giving out of the ritual next year if you don't feel comfortable with it.

    And the shoes? Awesome.

  2. They won't be "damaged" by either decision, they are tougher than you think! I would leave it open-ended by telling them that your family's tradition is you may or may not get gifts each night. And, designate a night where you as a family give to others, like the night you visited Bubbes and Zaydes.

    When Maddie and Marlana were little, they would give us "gift certificates" that might include letting us sleep in, doing a chore that they can handle, etc. That way even at your kids ages, they can give something to you and David.


  3. wowowowowowow, does this post resonate with me! made worse by the fact that both my kids have winter birthdays, and will be getting gifts galore in a couple of weeks. i vowed only to get one (okay, maybe two) small gifts for each child. add that to what they get from savta and grandpa, saba, grandma and papa, great grandma, three sets of aunts and uncles and their accompanying children, we're ALMOST only at one per night. and STILL i find that the 79 cent hot wheel car my almost-four-year-old was obsessing over and was so elated about on the first night is not nearly as exciting as it would have been if it was the only gift. all of the special people in our lives love seeing (or hearing about) the fabulous smiles that come with a gift that is much appreciated. so they haven't been all that receptive to the pleas not to buy the kids anything.

    our nephew is getting a second-hand toy from us that he loved playing with at our house, and our other niece and nephew are getting invited over for a sleepover. i feel like the stingy auntie, though.

  4. FI, thank you for the peek into this lovely religious tradition. We faced the same type of problems as my daughter was growing up... Even if we didn't overload her with presents, once the extended family gifted her, it became TOO much! Getting her to go through her things to "make room" for her new things and donate so some other kiddos would be happy helped.

  5. Oh, my, ladies! Thank you so much for your comments and your support. I feel hugged all the way from Middle America, truly!

    I have had a lot of people say, "It's normal." That may be, but I'm going to use some of your suggestions to help make it not-so-normal at our house.

    Inoursmallgarden, thanks for the props on the shoes. :)
    Lori, thanks for the suggestion that we get some gifts (yay!)
    Stephanie, I would *totally* give a secondhand toy.
    dmarie, thanks for reading. :)
    <3 ladies!!!

  6. our family also does the yearly purge to make way for new toys. last year we took five bags of new books and toys that our kids had never touched since birth and drove them over to a shelter for women and children escaping abuse, where the moms could "shop" for them on holidays and birthdays. we talked then (and still do now) about giving things to people who don't have enough money to buy them, being a mensch, doing a mitzvah. even though my older child doesn't make the connection in the moment that he's pouting over a gift received or wanted, i'm holding out hope that it will balance in the end.

  7. I'm so glad to find your blog via Chaviva's blog. My partner and I (both women) are very religious - Go to Ortho shuls, shomer shabbos, shomer kashrus, etc. We are foster parenting two non-Jewish boys. This was their first Chanukah, and I think we did it all wrong. We went all out with presents because we were so excited to be able to buy them stuff - We've been wanting to be parents for so long, plus they came with so little so they needed a lot. The problem is that our older boy (10) was opening the next present practically before he'd finished opening the first, and complaining if the present was at all "useful" (as opposed to a toy), and would ask "is that all?" almost every night. I know some of it is age appropriate, and some of it is special issues foster kids often have, etc... but it was obnoxious and made me feel like I had wasted a whole lot of money. I recently saw an amazing list of ways to make Chanukah more meaningful and I think next year we will change how we do it, making each night have a "theme" that involves the family doing some kind of project or some kind of mitzvah together and only very small gifts. Especially given that our boys, being Christian, get presents from Santa at X-mas time, too! (We celebrate it with non-Jewish relatives... we don't do it in our home). It's hard to know how to do this stuff right, to impart non-consumerist values and appreciation and humility in children (who are inherently selfish, egotistical, and ungrateful until successfully taught otherwise!)


Thanks for your comments! They make my day.

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