A few years ago the religion editor of a metropolitan newspaper called me to discuss a piece she was working on about the upcoming holiday season. She wanted to know if I could provide her with a different "take" on Chanukah than she was used to hearing.
"And what is it you're used to hearing?" I asked.
"Well, you know," she said, "that Chanukah celebrates the struggle for national self-determination. Or that it's a time of giving, like Christmas and Kwanzaa, only in a Jewish sort of way."
Let's make one thing clear:
There is nothing bad about presents per se. It's just that they don't have any particular significance on Chanukah. In fact, if no one gives or receives even one present on Chanukah, they have not omitted anything central to the holiday.
Everybody I know, including my own kids, wants to strangle me after reading this. To set the record straight: Yes, I got Chanukah presents when I was a child. And yes, my wife and give our children a few gifts on Chanukah. Having said that…
The reason we give presents on Chanukah is because Chanukah just happens to arrive around the same time as Santa. Our Jewish holiday has become culturally overwhelmed by society's obsession with Christmas presents.
There is great historical irony in the fact that Chanukah has been so dramatically impacted by a non-Jewish religion and culture. The Jewish people fought to resist one culture and have celebrated that resistance for over 2,000 years. Now we find ourselves adopting the customs of yet another culture to celebrate the victory of Chanukah.
I wonder what Judah Maccabee would say about that?
THE SOUL OF CHANUKAH
Chanukah is about two ever-present forces: darkness and light. It's about a struggle between two world shaping ideologies: Hellenism and Judaism. It's about the imperceptible human spark that enables people to reach far beyond their perceived limitations. It's about the power in a diminutive flame to banish an enormous darkness. It's about a tiny people overcoming the most daunting of foes.
Presents are wonderful – to give and to receive. But Chanukah is primarily not a season of giving but a season of growing. It is the opportunity to discover so much more – to acquire fresh insights into Jewish life and a bold new inspiration for living.
After all, what greater gift could there be?
Adapted from "Chanukah - Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul"