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Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

Hanukkah has become known for gift-giving around the world, and it’s many Jews’ favorite holiday tradition today. With the Festival of Lights starting a mere weeks away on December 18th, 2022, now’s the perfect time to learn how Hanukkah became the ultimate Jewish holiday for giving gifts!

Hanukkah may not be a religiously major holiday, but it’s the one most heavily associated with spreading holiday cheer through giving gifts to children and other family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Whether in a secular, Orthodox, or any other Jewish community, people give astronomically more presents on this occasion than any other throughout the year.

Where exactly does this custom come from, and has it always been around? And what kinds of Hanukkah gifts are traditionally given?

Origins of Hanukkah Gift Giving
Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

Jews didn't always give presents for Hanukkah, but there has instead been a centuries-old tradition of giving gifts of money, known as Hanukkah gelt in Yiddish or dmei Hanukkah in Hebrew. It began as giving money to one's religious school teachers as a token of gratitude, and eventually extended to parents and relatives giving small sums of money to children as well, in order to encourage Torah learning.

Hanukkah in particular is an ideal time to focus on passing on and encouraging Torah knowledge and Jewish traditions in the next generation, as the holiday is a reminder of the way the Seleucid Greeks tried and failed to stop Jewish learning and observance. 

 

As mass production of chocolate exploded in the 20th century, many Jewish families started to give treats of chocolate coins instead of actual money - and these foil-wrapped chocolates are what the word "gelt" usually refers to today.

At around the same time, the practice of giving other kinds of special presents to kids besides money or chocolate also became common, and eventually extended to giving Hanukkah gifts to one's adult loved ones as well.

Christmas Influence?
Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

Many people assume that Jews give gifts on Hanukkah as the Jewish answer to that "other" December holiday that's unavoidable in Western cultures, Christmas. While the tradition is no doubt amplified by the general gift-giving excitement of the December holiday season, it has its own distinctly Jewish origins in the custom of Hanukkah gelt giving.

To write off Hanukkah gift-giving as a completely Christmas-centric history misses a lot of steps that happened in both cultures. Giving presents on Christmas is a relatively new practice as well, and many Christian groups even shunned Christmas celebrations completely until the 18th or 19th centuries. It's more likely that both the Christmas and Hanukkah customs of giving presents developed and expanded at around the same time.

Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?
Modern Hanukkah Gift Giving
Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

For many Jews around the world today, Hanukkah means presents! This custom makes it one of the more fun and exciting holidays in the Jewish calendar.

Some families give gifts just once or twice throughout the eight-day holiday, some give every night, and others have a mix of gifts and giving to charity. Some exchange presents on the first night of Hanukkah, while there’s also a specific custom of giving a single gift specifically on the 5th night - because with the way the Hebrew calendar works, the 5th night will never overlap with Shabbat, so traditional prohibitions against giving or receiving gifts don't apply.

Hanukkah is also the holiday with some of the most iconic Judaica and other traditional items associated with its celebrations - from the Hanukkah menorahs and candles to the dreidels, gelt, festive tableware for a scrumptious meal of fried foods, and more. And this means wonderful opportunities to gift one's family and friends with beautiful holiday essentials they'll need for a joyous Festival of Lights!

Many personal customs and preferences have sprung up surrounding Hanukkah gift giving, blending origins around supporting Jewish learning, modern consumerism and general gift-giving practices, and perhaps a natural desire to make cold dark winter months more pleasant. Whatever the history, the tradition of Hanukkah presents is here to stay!

Traditional Gifts for Hanukkah
Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

Even though giving gifts on Hanukkah is relatively new as a custom that truly took off in the last hundred years or so, there are still plenty of established traditions for the things we give to our loved ones this time of year.

Though few would protest a gift of money in line with the original tradition, it’s considered more special and meaningful to give something with sentimental value that still carries traditional weight.

If you want to keep the meaning of giving something to help children learn, consider getting a Jewish book, whether that’s a prayer book, something on Jewish history, or sacred texts and commentary. For the younger crowd who are growing their minds, a great way to pass on a love of Judaism to the next generation is through educational games and puzzles, or other kinds of Jewish toys.

For the adults and teens in your family, Jewish jewelry has become a cherished and traditional Hanukkah gift. The holidays should be regarded with beauty, and a necklace or ring can be worn often and cherished for years to come. This also applies to home decorations, or items used for Hanukkah activity, like menorahs or dreidels. If you’re at a loss, consider Hanukkah gift baskets for your friends and loved ones with lots of mixed kosher items from Israel!

Other time-tested gifts include Shabbat Judaica, like kiddush cups, challah boards, candlesticks, or havdalah sets, which make for practical and meaningful holiday presents whether you're giving to a young adult or new couple just starting a home, or an established family who'd appreciate a beautiful new Judaica addition to their collection.

Moreover, anyone will appreciate a Hanukkah-themed item to brighten up their holiday and remind them of the Festival of Lights the rest of the year - whether that's a mug, watch, apron, or even Jerusalem-themed art to honor the miracle of Hanukkah that happened in the Temple in the Holy City.

Any gift that’s personal and special is sure to be appreciated! Ultimately, no matter where this custom of swapping gifts at Hanukkah started, it’s a festive way to make the winter season a little warmer.

See everything we have on offer for Hanukkah 2022, and check out the top 10 Hanukkah picks straight from the Land of Israel!

Why Do We Give Gifts on Hanukkah?

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