Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration celebrated on the 25th of Kislev—the Jewish month that usually falls in November and December. The celebration of Hanukkah is also sometimes called the “Festival of Lights.”
The dates on which Hanukkah is celebrated are based on the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian calendar. That means the dates change each year. Hanukkah celebrations aren't just for one or two days but eight days. It starts at sundown on the first day and ends at sundown on the eighth day.
Although Hanukkah is celebrated around the same time as one of the biggest holidays generally celebrated in the United States, it is not a major Jewish holiday. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are considered to be more important Jewish holidays than Hanukkah, as is Passover.
Rosh Hashanah is the traditional Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement. Both of these are celebrated during September or October each year. Rosh Hashanah marks the day that God created Adam and Eve and is celebrated on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first or seventh month on the Hebrew calendar, depending on which month you start to count from. The beginning of the 10 Days of Repentance, or 10 Days of Awe, leads to Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is on the 10th day of Tishrei and one of the most solemn Jewish holidays. It is also called the Day of Atonement. It is believed that God decides a person's fate on this day, and Jews are urged to apologize and seek forgiveness for sins committed during the past year.
The history of Hanukkah and giving gifts
Jewish people offered sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem centuries ago (around 200 B.C.). The Greeks at that time banned sacrificial offerings, replacing them with pagan worship. A war ensued and was won by a small group of Jews called the Maccabees. They set out to restore the Temple and altar that the Greeks had destroyed. They rededicated the altar and started offering sacrifices to God again. The rededication (Hanukkah in Hebrew) celebrations lasted eight days.
A central part of the rededication celebration involved lighting a Menorah to make the Temple holy again. The Jews could only find enough oil for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights until they could make more oil (pressed from olives) and keep the eternal flame lit. Hanukkah is all about remembering this miracle, much like Christians celebrate Christmas to remember the miracle of Jesus's birth.
The origin of gift-giving during Hanukkah is not clear. Regardless, there is a connection between giving gifts and offering sacrifices at the Temple. Hanukkah gifts are gifts that help one worship God; they also encourage acts of study or prayer. Some believe there was a shift in focus from sacrificing to honor God to giving gifts instead. They believe the tradition of giving gifts for Hanukkah originated in these ancient times.
Others are of the opinion that giving gifts during Hanukkah only became popular when Christmas was made a national holiday in the United States in 1870. During this time, kids around the country started receiving gifts for Christmas, and some Jewish families adopted the custom of exchanging gifts at Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is celebrated around the same time of the year as Christmas, and after World War II, American Jewish parents started giving their children gifts for the eight nights of Hanukkah. One theory holds that rabbis and Jewish child psychologists encouraged giving gifts to post-Holocaust Jewish kids to foster healing and inspire them to embrace and celebrate their heritage, religion, and traditions.
The Hanukkah celebrations remind Jews of their traditions and beliefs and teach them to be proud to be Jewish.
One Hanukkah tradition that is believed to have stemmed from the victory over the Greeks so long ago is the giving of gelt. Today Hanukkah gelt is represented by chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. It is said that these coins represent the money that the victorious Jews took from the Greeks and distributed to those in need. This included teachers who did not earn salaries and were not allowed to ask for money for teaching out of the Torah.
Others say that the chocolate coins represent a new currency that the Jewish community invented to create their own independence. The money was originally supposed to be given to teachers as charity. The aim was never about receiving money but rather about doing good deeds with the money one has.
The celebration of Hanukkah
During Hanukkah celebrations, people eat traditional Jewish foods, play dreidel games, and light the Menorah. Dreidel games are similar to dice games, and a Menorah is a candelabra with multiple branches or candle holders. The Menorah resembles the eternal flame lit in the Temple so very long ago and is an essential element of Hanukkah.
A Menorah used during Hanukkah has a total of nine candles and is also called a Chanukiah. This is different from the Menorah that was lit in the Temple long ago, which had seven branches.
On Chanukiah Menorahs, eight lights or candles are placed in a row with one additional candle to the side, below, or above – separate from the eight. The ninth lamp or candle is called a shamash (servitor or helper) and symbolically sets the other eight holy flames apart from everyday light sources. The shamash is traditionally used to light the other eight candles of the Menorah.
The eight candles of the Hanukkah Menorah represent the eight nights that the Menorah in the Temple burned during rededication when there was only enough oil to keep the flame lit for one day. The duration of Hanukkah, eight days, represents the same.
On each night during Hanukkah, one additional light of the eight is lit. On the first night, only the shamash and one candle are lit. On the second night, the shamash and two Hanukkah candles are lit, and so forth, until the final night of Hanukkah, where all eight Hanukkah candles and the shamash are lit. The candles are placed on the Menorah (one more each night) from right to left. They are then lit from left to right.
A Hanukkah menorah can be lit by candles made of paraffin or wax. Certain ones can also hold olive oil with a wick that can be lit. While Menorahs that use olive oil resembles the original seven-branch Menorah more closely, using olive oil is not necessary.
Each Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah slightly differently. The Hanukkah traditions that a family observes often involve a combination of the traditions that each parent grew up with.
Usually, the lighting of the candles is combined with a blessing. Other activities include cooking together, playing games, or writing letters to loved ones.
Why do you give eight gifts at Hanukkah?
Gift giving at Hanukkah is a relatively new tradition, and giving eight gifts is not required. In fact, giving gifts during Hanukkah is mainly a tradition observed by American Jews. Read on to learn more about Hanukkah gift etiquette.
Some families may not exchange gifts at Hanukkah while others could only give children gelt. Some Jewish families might give one gift per person or family or give every family member a gift on each one of the eight nights that Hanukkah is celebrated.
That means that giving eight gifts during Hanukkah is not required. Instead, it is something that you choose to do. Suppose you will be gifting Hanukkah gifts to someone whose Hanukkah traditions might differ from yours. In that case, you may ask about their traditions around gift-giving beforehand, especially if you will give to children.
Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is celebrated on the “eve of,” or “nights before.” Each “night before,” the Menorah candles will be lit, and a blessing will be said before the family and guests spend time together. As part of these celebrations, Hanukkah gifts will traditionally be given in the evenings. If only one gift is given, this could be done on any of the Eves of Hanukkah. Most commonly, single Hanukkah gifts are given on the first or last night of the festivities.
How do I come up with eight gifts while keeping them thoughtful?
Firstly, you don't necessarily have to buy eight Hanukkah gifts, but if you want to, here are some Hanukkah gift ideas to help you find the perfect Hanukkah gifts for your friends and loved ones.
Although it occurs around the same time as Christmas, Hanukkah gifts are usually less extravagant than Christmas gifts. When choosing and gifting thoughtful Hanukkah gifts, think about the person or family you will give them to.
Hanukkah gifts should be small, simple, and from the heart. The secret to giving thoughtful Hanukkah gifts is not to overthink them. You also don't need to spend a lot of money on gifts.
Personal or useful items are always welcome. These could include books, sterling silver jewelry, puzzles, board games, or anything that couldn't courage quality family time.
When looking for Hanukkah gifts, consider giving traditional gifts like chocolate gelt, wood Menorahs, candles, or dreidels. These gifts are items that a family is sure to use and will remind them of you whenever they do.
If you choose to give traditional Hanukkah gifts, consider looking for something that mixes traditional with modern. For example, you could look for homemade craft, applesauce, or Hanukkah gelt made from gourmet chocolate.
Charitable gifts could make perfect Hanukkah gifts. You could consider donating money to a charity, buying products for your local animal shelter, or giving presents to those less fortunate.
Practical Hanukkah gifts are often preferred over-indulgent or extravagant gifts. This could be anything from clothing and socks to aprons or mugs with Hanukkah-related quotes or sayings on them.
An easy way to give multiple gifts while still keeping them personal is to stick to a theme. This theme could revolve around a hobby or passion that the recipient has. Gifts related to a theme don't necessarily have to be the same type of gifts.
You do not need to buy someone who loves shoes eight pairs of shoes. Instead, look for items that they can use in conjunction with their love of shoes. Perhaps a good shoe cleaner, a gift card to their favorite shoe store, or a display rack will be precisely what they need.
Similarly, someone who loves watching movies might appreciate a kosher snack basket and some cozy socks to wear while working through their list of must-see movies.
What are some Hanukkah gifts that the whole family can enjoy?
Each family is different, and one family might celebrate Hanukkah differently from the next. Before bringing someone a Hanukkah gift, ask about their traditions. A thoughtful Hanukkah gift will fit into the family's traditions.
Hanukkah festivities are more about family than it is about gifts. A Hanukkah gift that the entire family can enjoy could be perfect. Boardgames, dreidel sets, and puzzles would make beautiful gifts for Jewish families who enjoy spending time together at home.
Families who enjoy going places together could appreciate an experience gift like a trip to a theme park, planetarium, or theater.
A beautiful Menorah with special candles is another Hanukkah gift that the entire family would appreciate. Remember that nine candles are needed each night. If you want to include enough candles to last throughout Hanukkah, you will need to give 44.
Gardeners might enjoy a collection of gifts related to gardening, like seeds or bulbs, equipment, growing bags, and plant markers.
Monogrammed or initialed gifts are always a hit. Giving each family member a monogrammed item will leave them feeling special. For persons that you don't know very well, consider giving a less personal item like a scarf or notebook. Monogrammed pajamas, robes, or towels make lovely gifts if you are close to the recipients.
Hanukkah-inspired ornaments are great Hanukkah gifts. Not only will it be enjoyed this Hanukkah, but every Hanukkah to come. The possibility for Hanukkah-inspired ornaments or decorations is endless. Look for Hanukkah decorations that have traditional symbols like the Menorah, the Star of David, or a dreidel.
What to get kids for Hanukkah?
While Christmas might have inspired the tradition of gift-giving during Hanukkah, many Jewish families prefer to give practical gifts to avoid the gifts becoming the main focus of the celebrations.
Gifting extravagant items is not the norm during Hanukkah celebrations. Practical items like books, clothing, or socks make perfect gifts for children. Videos or books telling the story of Hanukkah is a good gift idea because it merges the new tradition of gift-giving with the history of why Hanukkah is celebrated.
Other popular Hanukkah gifts for kids include electronics, Lego sets, and video games. They might also enjoy a new set of pajamas, bathrobes, and slippers to keep cozy on winter nights.
Older children might appreciate jewelry. Look for something that has traditional Hanukkah symbols. Having their Hebrew name made into a custom piece of jewelry could make for a memorable and special Hanukkah gift for an older child.
Children could be taught about giving and not only receiving during Hanukkah. Parents could encourage them to clean out closets or toy chests to donate or take them to the store and have them pick out gifts for other kids who may not have the privileges that they have.
Another fun way to teach kids about giving is to bake some cookies or other treats to share with residents at your local old age living facility.
A few Do's and Don'ts of Hanukkah gift giving and celebrating
Hanukkah is around the same time of year as Christmas, when shops are full of all things Christmas-themed. It might be tempting to be swept away with the excitement of the holiday season with its sparkly Christmas decorations in red, green, and gold. Instead, look for gifts and decorations in blue or white or that are neutral. These are the traditional colors of Hanukkah.
The same goes for wrapping paper. Choosing wrapping paper that is neutral or blue and white is a much better choice than something Christmassy. It would be even better to find something with the Star of David, some dreidels, or Menorahs printed on it. In every case, try to avoid red and green as it is too reminiscent of the traditional Christian celebration.
Used appropriate crafting and cards. As with the decorations, try to avoid Christmas wrapping or cards. Instead, choose Hanukkah-inspired or neutral wrapping paper. A heartfelt and handwritten Hanukkah card will add a beautiful personal touch to any Hanukkah gift, even more so if it is handmade.
Avoid giving Hanukkah gifts on Christmas (unless one of the days of Hanukkah falls on the same date). This keeps the celebration of Hanukkah separate from the celebration of Christmas and prevents Hanukkah from becoming or being perceived as a “Jewish Christmas.” Some Jewish families give one gift on each night of Hanukkah, while others prefer to give one Hanukkah gift to the whole family.
What kind of food and treats are enjoyed and given during Hanukkah?
Food is a large part of Hanukkah—as it is of most celebrations. Fried food is especially popular during Hanukkah because oil is literally the reason why the holiday exists. Because food is a large part of Hanukkah, a kosher cookbook can be a thoughtful and practical gift.
Edible gifts are always welcome; consider giving latkes (fried potato cakes), sufganiyot (round jelly donuts), apple sauce, brisket, or challah bread as Hanukkah gifts. Or look for chocolates, cookies, candies shaped like the Star of David, dreidels, or decorated in blue and white.
It is believed that during the rededication of the Temple so long ago, a small amount of oil kept the flames of the Temple's Menorah burning for eight days. For this reason, oil is an integral part of Hanukkah. Unique or infused cooking oils could make a thoughtful gift to those who love cooking.
Remember that all food items need to be kosher, especially if the family only eats kosher food. You may want to learn about the family's habits and beliefs around food before you gift them with something edible for Hanukkah. Avoid shellfish and pork products in most cases, as most Jewish people don't eat these foods.
What might I put in a Hanukkah gift basket?
Hanukkah gift baskets are perfect for celebrations because eating and feasting together is a big part of the holiday. In general, food and drinks need to be kosher. There are general guidelines that need to be followed, and some families are stricter about following these than others.
In most cases, dairy and meat products should not be prepared using the same equipment or mixed into one dish or meal. When sending a Hanukkah gift basket, you might need to avoid including products containing meat and dairy in the same basket.
Suppose you are unsure about the dietary restrictions of a Jewish family. In that case, avoiding products containing meat, shellfish, and dairy is safest.
Try sending a gift basket with some thoughtfully picked items instead. One gift basket with eight gifts—one for each day of Hanukkah—is a beautiful way to be a part of someone's Hanukkah celebrations without being there in person.
Gift baskets do not have to include food. They can be centered around themes or include a few unrelated items that you know the person will love.
A book lover, for example, might enjoy receiving a gift basket with a good book, bookmark, and reading light. Someone who enjoys being pampered may appreciate a gift basket filled with creams, bath salts, scented candles, and a face mask.
How can Spoonful of Comfort make Hanukkah extra special this year?
Spoonful of Comfort has made the gift giving their business. We specialize in putting together the best gift baskets and care packages for each and every celebration and occasion, including Hanukkah. Contact us to find out how we can make your Hanukkah gift-giving extra special.
Hanukkah is far from the “Jewish Christmas” with eight nights of gifts, as it may sometimes be called. In fact, gift-giving at Hanukkah only became more popular after Christmas became a national holiday in the United States and everyone started exchanging holiday gifts. Even then, the tradition of giving Hanukkah gifts is mainly observed only by American Jews and not even all of them.
If you choose to give Hanukkah gifts, how and what you give is mostly up to you. Bear in mind that if you want to give a Hanukkah gift to a Jewish family, it is a good idea to enquire about their traditions first.
Simple and practical Hanukkah gifts are best. This keeps the focus on the holiday and the reason for the celebration. The miracle of the oil that lasted for eight nights so long ago.
Although Hanukkah is celebrated around the same time of the year as Christmas, it is not the most important Jewish celebration. It is, however, one of the best-known Jewish holidays, perhaps purely because it falls around the same dates as one of the most significant holidays in the United States.
Whether you choose to give eight Hanukkah gifts, one Hanukkah gift or no Hanukkah gifts is up to you. If you decide to give someone a Hanukkah gift, remember that Hanukkah is a unique holiday with very specific traditions linked to your friend’s religious beliefs.