The Origin of Giving Gifts
We are all familiar with the practice of giving gifts each night of Chanukah; parents, grandparents, and even siblings present their loved ones with cards, toys, candies, etc. This is a widely variant tradition: some families give money, some give presents, and still some don’t give anything at all. But for those families who do, where is this custom from? The answer might — or might not — come as a surprise: Chanukah gifts are almost a direct result of the commercialization of the holiday season.
When examined closely, the practice of giving Chanukah gifts is most common in North America, where Jews are surrounded by other, heavily commercialized cultures, specifically Christianity. The United States Office of Personnel Management classifies Christmas Day as a federal holiday — the same classification as Independence Day or Martin Luther King, Jr., Day — on which all government buildings are closed and federal employees receive a day off of work. American companies began taking advantage of this nationwide “observance” of Christmas beginning in the early 1840s, marketing everything Christmas-themed, from cards to toys to food; while religious traditions predate this, the commercialized celebration only began in the mid-19th century. (For example, the first Christmas card ever sold was in 1843.) The number of American Christians compared to American Jews (70.6% versus 1.9%, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study) means that because companies market to the largest, most profitable population, the vast majority of products advertised and sold leading up to the ‘holiday season’ — starting as early as November 1st — are Christmas merchandise.
“American companies began taking advantage of this nationwide “observance” of Christmas beginning in the early 1840s, marketing everything Christmas-themed, from cards to toys to food; while religious traditions predate this, the commercialized celebration only began in the mid-19th century.”
This is not to say, however, that Chanukah-themed merchandise is not sold. In fact, Chanukah decor and Menorah-stamped gift wrap (and even Chanukah-themed Christmas ornaments) are becoming more and more popular since the 1950’s, when the commercialized celebration of the Jewish holiday began to gain momentum. When Jewish kids see their Christian friends and classmates sharing tree-shaped cookies leftover from the holiday meal and showing off the new red and green toys that they received, one can only imagine the sense of isolation and loneliness they feel. Parents, seeing a simple, logical solution for their children, began observing Chanukah in parallel ways, such as giving gifts, so their children didn’t feel left out. Rabbi Joshua Plaut explains in his book A Kosher Christmas, “Jews have created a parallel seasonal universe of Jewish praxis that allows them to coexist with other Americans in the United States, despite Christmas’s status as a [federal] holiday.” He argued, “This strategy has made it easier for Jewish parents to influence their children to avoid celebrating Christmas in favor of celebrating Hanukkah.”
“Parents, seeing a simple, logical solution for their children, began observing Chanukah in parallel ways, such as giving gifts, so their children didn’t feel left out.”
While commercialization has helped bring Chanukah into the mainstream, it has also shifted the focus of the holiday from pride and celebration to buying and giving presents. Fundamentally, the practice stems from a long-lasting fear of assimilation that the Jews have known from the days of Egypt, when Yaakov and his family agreed not to change their names, language, or clothing in order to protect their Jewish identity (Pesikta Zutra on Devarim 41a). But in actuality, it might just be the most non-Jewish practice in Judaism. When interviewed, a local rabbi expressed that commercialized Chanukah gifts (things like store-bought cards, blue and white chocolate, etc.) make the celebration “seem too much like Christmas.” He continued, “I am in favor of getting presents, though. So I guess that kind of contradicts what I said.”
So I conclude with a warning: The exchange of gifts can be deeply beneficial in maintaining American Jew’s practice and participation in Jewish festivals. However, we must be careful that this practice does not undermine the entire message of the Chanukah celebration: uniquely Jewish pride.