A history of the practice and some tips for parents.
Most American Jews can rattle off a list of Hanukkah traditions such as lighting the menorah each night; playing dreidel games; eating foods cooked in oil; and giving gifts. However, many wonder if this last tradition is really a Jewish tradition, or whether Hanukkah presents just came about in reaction to Christmas.
A Brief History
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explains that Jews used to exchange gifts only on Purim, but in the late 19th century there was a shift from Purim to Hanukkah. Christmas itself became magnified in the late 19th century when it became a national holiday in America. The Jewish custom shifted in imitation of Christmas, as its consumerism grew.
Sarna distinguishes the practice of giving Hanukkah gifts from its precursor--Hanukkah gelt (Yiddish for money): "Hanukkah gelt is an old custom, well attested in Europe. Gift giving, by contrast, is new."
The precise origin of Hanukkah gelt is unclear. The most popular explanation is that coins became a symbol of the holiday because the ancient Jews' ability to make their own coins was a symbol of the independence they gained in the battles that the festival of lights commemorates.
In his book Holidays, History and Halakhah, Eliezer Segal argues that the earliest sources that mention gelt on Hanukkah are about students in Europe giving gelt to their teachers. Segal suggests that this practice was perhaps inspired by semantic and etymological connections between the Hebrew word Hanukkah (dedication) and the Hebrew word hinnukh (education).
According to Segal, some Jewish communities used the Hanukkah season to recognize religious teachers who, because of the prohibition of accepting money for teaching Torah, would normally not accept payment for their work. Segal suggests that students whose parents gave them money to pass on to their teachers eventually started to ask for their own share of gelt. This might be the source of the custom to give gelt to children on Hanukkah.
Today, some families prefer to give Hanukkah gelt rather than gifts because they view gelt as a more authentically Jewish tradition. Minka Goldstein, a mother of six, says she gives one dollar per candle, not counting the shamash. On the first night her kids receive one dollar; second night, two, etc. The total is $36 for eight nights, and she says her children (and now grandchildren too) love it.
Goldstein uses this as an opportunity to teach her kids how to spend wisely. When they were little, she took her kids to Toys R Us and let them decide what to buy with their $36.
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