The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah lasts eight nights — which, for some families who celebrate it, means eight nights of presents, which can add up quickly. But Hanukkah doesn’t have to include gift-giving at all. We spoke to three people who celebrate Hanukkah without exchanging gifts — here’s why they choose to celebrate without presents.
A minor holiday
The history of Hanukkah has little to do with exchanging wrapped gifts. Hanukkah is actually a minor Jewish holiday, and doesn’t appear in the Torah, or Old Testament. Hanukkah commemorates a historic event, the rededication of Second Temple in Jerusalem, in the second century B.C.
Any rabbi will tell you Hanukkah pales in religious importance next to major Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashana, which is the Jewish New Year. So how did a minor holiday celebrating a small victory over the occupying Greeks turn into a celebration that warrants an annual White House party, television specials and piles of presents?
The answer is simple: Christmas. According to Dianne Ashton, professor of American Studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, Hanukkah only became popular among American Jews in the late 19th Century, when American Jewish communities took note of the ways their neighbors celebrated Christmas, and adapted some elements of Christmas celebrations of the time for their winter holiday.
"They didn't see Christmas as something they could do easily because it's Christian, but they did want to do something like that because it was American," Ashton told NPR in 2010.
Gift-giving on Hanukkah became a way to engage more Jewish families, especially children.
The business of holiday presents
Fast forward to 2019: This year Americans will spend about $730 billion on retail during the holiday season, the National Retail Federation predicts. While much of that spending undoubtedly revolves around Christmas, Hanukkah has historically been along for the ride.
But not everyone who celebrates Hanukkah chooses to do so with presents. And for some, Christmas is actually part of the reason to go gift-less for Hanukkah. Elizabeth, a 33 year-old nonprofit fundraiser in Washington, D.C., who asked that we not share her last name, grew up celebrating Hanukkah but said gifts weren’t a big part of the holiday for her family.
“I don't remember presents being a notable part of Hanukkah at all. In fact, I can't think of a single thing I got as a Hanukkah present,” Elizabeth told Policygenius. “My memories of Hanukkah from my childhood are mostly about making/eating latkes and lighting the candles and singing songs, so that's really all I want to pass on to my 2-year old son.”
And since her son is being raised celebrating Christmas as well as Hanukkah, Elizabeth said she doesn’t feel a need to include presents in her family’s Hanukkah traditions.
“Because there are so many presents at Christmas between what's in the stockings (given by Father Christmas) and what's under the tree (given by family) and because my son has a December birthday, I really don't feel the need to add to my son's haul at this time of year,” she said.
Kalman Cagan, a 30-year-old security officer from Western Massachusetts, said he grew up celebrating Hanukkah too.
“I celebrated it pretty regularly growing up, with prayers and candle lighting. My parents would give me a little present each night,” he said. “The presents were often Jewish-themed, and or books … little knickknacks and whatnot. They were not expensive or extravagant.”
But now that Cagan also celebrates Christmas with his wife, he no longer includes gifts in his Hanukkah celebration.
“I like keeping with the storytelling aspect of the holiday,” he said. “Who cares about gifts? Give the gift of tradition, of badass storytelling and of victory, to a younger generation.”
For Ellen Diamond, a 59 year-old technical editor in Santa Ana, California, letting go of Hanukkah gifts was a gradual process.
“My mom used to decorate inside; we played dreidel; we lit the candles; we ate potato latkes; and we exchanged gifts. My dad was in the military, so we lived all over, often not near any family or other Jewish people,” Diamond said.
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“When we were in elementary school, my mom would make cookies (dreidel, Star of David, menorah and Chai) and bring them to our class and talk about Hanukkah. We got gifts from our parents every night as well as other gifts from family members until we turned 13 – then we only got one big gift from our parents, but still got gifts from other family members.”
But about 10 years ago, Diamond said, she and her family stopped exchanging Hanukkah gifts.
“It just got harder to think of things we wanted when our parents would ask – if we wanted something, we would just get it for ourselves,” she said.
Now that she lives farther away from her immediate family, the celebration has changed.
“I think for our family, the fun of gifts was being all together and opening them together and when that stopped, they just stopped being so important,” she said.
There are plenty of good reasons for skipping Hanukkah presents this year, whether it’s focusing less on material items or your changing family structure. Skipping gifts can also be a money-saver — although many families also celebrate Christmas. Still, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the holiday without unwrapping presents around the menorah.
“My advice to anyone who wants to shift the focus of Hanukkah away from presents is to create traditions around the experiences you can share: making latkes, lighting candles, singing songs, telling stories,” Elizabeth said.
“If kids really protest, especially if they're comparing Hanukkah to Christmas, I'd suggest being really honest about how Hanukkah isn't a holiday about presents and that we don't need to compete with Christmas or Christians; use it as an opportunity to talk about what Judaism means to you and your family and how your family practices what it believes.”
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