Socks. Board games. Underwear. Movie tickets. Musical toothbrushes?
They’re probably not the big presents most kids say they want for Hanukkah. But with eight nights to celebrate, parents, especially these days, often don’t want to indulge their children with a standout gift each night. And they want the holiday to be about more than a pile of presents.
Try the Hanukkah theme night, an easy, enjoyable and often inexpensive way to give gifts, with each child (and lucky adult) getting the same kind of present like books, pajamas or video game. Themed gifts can tame sibling rivalry, and when they are enjoyed together on the evening they’re given, the celebration becomes more meaningful, parents say.
“It helps because if it’s movie night, we know we’re watching movies. If it’s book night, I know we’re snuggling in bed that night reading the book,” says Cindy Edelstein, 44, of Pelham, N.Y., whose daughter is 11. “It takes the present to a whole evening experience.”
Traditionally, Hanukkah gift-giving did not approach the level of present exchanges associated with Christmas. Hanukkah, though widely observed by American Jews, is less significant under Jewish law than several other holidays. It commemorates the miracle of a one-day supply of oil burning for eight days at the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple around 164 B.C. Hanukkah arrives this year on the night of Dec. 21.
The custom of a Hanukkah gift began hundreds of years ago as gelt, or money. Children were given coins to play dreidel, buy candy and to give as tzedakah, a contribution to those less fortunate, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, a leader of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents rabbis in the Conservative Jewish movement.
It was in the last century, in this country, that gift giving evolved into what it is today, as Jews were confronted with the big celebrations for Christmas, he said. Some families these days give a gift only on the first night of Hanukkah, others on all eight.
Simple theme nights can feature gifts of winter staples like warm socks, hats and gloves and underwear. More elaborate nights may include current kid favorites like American Girl dolls, Hannah Montana toys and the Nintendo Wii with games and accessories.
“The themes tend to work out a lot better in terms of teaching a lesson or making them more appreciative of what they’re getting,” said Andrew Borislow, of Lower Gwynedd, Pa., who gave his 10-year-old twin sons a Planet Earth DVD game last year on Green Night.
In addition to creating family time, low-cost ideas like hot chocolate and personalized mugs teach children that not every night can be Big Present Night.
In Chicago, Lisa Curran has a night devoted to a family gift, like a vacation, and a pajama party, when her children — a 3-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son — will get new PJs, stuffed animals and a DVD to watch together. She also sets aside nights for gifts from relatives.
“It sets an expectation that she’s not getting eight gifts from every single person,” Curran says of her daughter. “She knows she’s not getting toys every night, not six toys every night.”
She began theme nights with her daughter’s first Hanukkah, concerned that her family might go overboard for the first grandchild. “We needed some kind of strategy to sort of keep the holiday under control so it wouldn’t be a general free-for-all,” says Curran, 41.
Some families create gift themes on the individual nights of Hanukkah, such as pajama or movie night.
Kids get excited about the themes, anticipating what any given night will bring, and parents say it helps them appreciate their gifts more.
“The theme ends up being almost as important as the gift because we build the excitement up,” Andrew Borislow, of Lower Gwynedd, Pa., who’s done nights related to cooking, Harry Potter and Pokemon with his sons.
Some topical themes this year:
Plastic presents: Michelle Levine of Houston is getting her sons, ages 12 and 8, five or six gifts cards each this year because the shrinking economy has forced her to turn down their requests to eat out and see movies. Giving them $5 or $10 gift cards “will allow me to say ‘yes’ (on their dime) the next time they ask to go out for dinner or to see the new feature hitting theaters,” she said.
Green gifts: Jodi R.R. Smith, of Marblehead, Mass., is celebrating with her extended family with gifts that include a hemp bicycle shirt, a botanical facial and biodegradable waste bags and all-natural dog treats. The children are getting nature-themed books and toys, bug catchers and star charts.
Giving back: Following the Jewish tradition of giving to the needy, families set aside a night to make a charitable donation. A nice way to do it is to have the children donate the same gift they are getting. Cindy Edelstein, 44, of Pelham, N.Y., is giving her 11-year-old daughter pajamas, and they will also donate a matching pair.