Unplugging the Hanukkah Machine

By Valerie Leiter

We are in the midst of the holiday season, with carols on the radio, glitz in the stores, and the news telling us how important holiday buying is for the U.S. economy. A lively group of Shule parents met during a Parents Circle on December 4th to discuss our own families’ practices and brainstorm how we can “unplug the Hanukkah machine.”
Many of us are in blended families, celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. And most of us feel uncomfortable celebrating a holiday that is grounded in a military victory. Kids often equate Hanukkah with Christmas, yet it is not a major Jewish holiday on par with the High Holy Days or Passover. In the U.S., Hanukkah has come to mean gift giving, as we respond to the broader emphasis on Christmas presents. Our kids can feel like outsiders, who are disappointed that Santa doesn’t visit our houses. Hanukkah gifts are balm for Santa skipping our kids, but they can also have other meanings, as once-a-year splurges during lean times and featuring treasured family rituals like hand-made Hanukah gift bags.
We brainstormed about possible ways to “occupy” Hanukkah, finding broader meaning as a Jewish community and countering the dominant commercialism of the season. A few of us eschew gifts and focus on traditional Hanukkah rituals, such as lighting candles, eating lots of latkes, playing dreidel for gelt, or eating sufganiyot (doughnuts). Modern-made family rituals can be fun too. We can have gift-of-self nights with coupons for each other, have a tzedakah night, and nights on which the kids don’t receive gifts but instead give them to the important adults in their lives. And we can have celebrations with people outside of our households. Right now, most of us celebrate Hanukkah with our nuclear families, privately.
This is the darkest time of the year. Like others around the globe in the northern hemisphere, we yearn for ways to light the darkness. Candles and community go a long way in creating warmth and connection.
Valerie Leiter is a Workmen's Circle member with twin daughters in the sixth grade (vov) Shule class.