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A Veritable Chanukah Scrooge? No Time Like the Presents!

December 6, 2007 By:
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Chanukah raises some interesting questions, such as "Who gets to light the chanukiah tonight?" "Who wants to play dreidel?" or "Who will eat the burned latke?"

But with each passing year, the holiday seems to have moved away from those traditions, and become increasingly centered around gift-giving -- and with that, the bigger and more expensive the gift, the better (iPod, anyone?).

So new questions are raised: Has Chanukah become just a chance to give gifts? Has it become too much like Christmas? Are parents spoiling their kids with the notion that they will receive large gifts from a wish list each night? Are kids simply expecting too much?

In Israel, "Chanukah has nothing to do with presents," said Elna Yadin, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College's Child Study Institute, who was born and lived in Israel until coming to the United States for graduate school in the 1970s. Yadin, who is also coordinator of the obsessive-compulsive disorder open-treatment clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the holiday's proximity to Christmas is the reason for gift-giving in this country.

She said that in Israel, Chanukah is a history-based holiday that is celebrated by children making their own chanukiahs, and singing songs and lighting candles, where multiple generations gather to tell the story of the Maccabees. She added that Israelis who now live in the United States tend not to give gifts, but more typically join with family and friends each night and play dreidel.

"Chanukah is a nice holiday, but it is not a major holiday," said Yadin, the way Passover and Rosh Hashanah are.

The custom of giving gelt (Yiddish for "money") during Chanukah, explained Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of Chabad Lubavitch of Center City, goes back to historical times, when money was given to children as a way of enhancing Torah study, or as a symbol of religious freedom.

He said that children need to be taught about the origins of the Chanukah holiday, like the way the story of the Exodus is told during the Passover seder.

Sherri R. Edelman, a clinical psychologist and licensed counselor at Triune Chiropractic Counseling and Wellness LLC in Old City, said big gifts can also backfire: If children feel like they are entitled to have extravagant gifts because other kids have the same toys and gadgets, a climate of comparison can be created.

"It becomes, 'I need to be like everyone else,' " she said.

And that's just not realistic. Come adulthood, people find having lots of things doesn't necessarily make them happy, explained Edelman. She said people need to ask themselves, "Do I really need to keep up with the Cohens?"

Yadin agreed, adding that parents need to question if expensive gifts "send the right message," as an overindulged child may not necessarily appreciate what he or she is given.

'Open a Child's Mind'
While an abundance of Chanukah presents might be a relatively newer aspect of the holiday, said Lori Hope Lefkovitz, director of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, she pointed out that all traditions "began at some point and come from somewhere."

She added that other customs that have come to be associated with Chanukah weren't part of the original holiday celebration -- like the dreidel game, for example.

Changing traditions over time is not a bad thing, she said, and this can be done "without compromising our holiday."

Nonetheless, with the consumer culture at a high this time of year, "we can't escape the need to give our kids presents," acknowledged Lefkovitz.

She said that this needs to be balanced with the age-old traditions; parents need to encourage the holiday as a religious experience. Even though Chanukah is a minor holiday, it's still one of the most observed ones on the Jewish calendar, said Lefkovitz.

If parents do want to give gifts, Edelman advised giving educational-related items that promote self-development and a love of learning, such as books, nature and science kits, educational videos, musical equipment, crafts and puzzles, as well as items that encourage outdoor time, such as a bike or scooter.

"Explore creative gifts that will open a child's mind," she advised.

Gift-giving is not a bad thing when channeled properly, added Goldman of Lubavitch. He said that Chanukah is a great opportunity to teach children about the importance of tzedakah and to give to those in need.

The rabbi suggested taking time out during Chanukah to think about others who might not be as fortunate. He said that children are never too young to spend a day of the holiday volunteering their time or giving a toy to another child; this latter idea can be even more meaningful if the child actually picked out the toy to donate.

"Parents have a great opportunity to make Chanukah meaningful and educational, as well as fun," he concluded.

Yadin said that parents can actually harm their kids by giving in too easily in the gift game; after all, someone is working hard to get the money to buy all these things -- and it's not the child! Otherwise, it becomes a sense of entitlement to receive gifts like laptops and PlayStations.

How Yadin feels is best summed up with a quote from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"I'm not a Chanukah Scrooge," she insisted, "but it is an opportunity to teach these lessons. I would like to see Chanukah as it was intended, in addition to what is has become."

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