Hanukkah might not hold a candle to Christmas in terms of pop culture and pageantry. But as Adam Sandler pointed out in his Hanukkah Song, the holiday offers children one advantage: “Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.”
For Jewish parents, however, Hanukkah’s week-and-a-day duration poses an annual conundrum: how to divvy up the gifts. Should there be eight nights of equally weighted surprises – or should there be emphasis placed on a particular night for more significant presents?
If it’s the latter, what day counts the most? The first? The last? Or the fifth? (Yes, there’s a reason why the fifth night could top them all.)
“There is no consensus,” says Ricky Cohen, a Jewish entrepreneur who’s an adjunct teacher at New York’s Baruch College.
Not only is there no agreement, there’s almost a kind of pride in the confusion generated by the holiday. Indeed, many Jews believe the Hanukkah conundrum speaks to the essence of their faith and culture.
“Some might say we’re an overanalyzing people, but I think that’s a positive thing” when it comes to Hanukkah, says Jeremy Cowan, who heads Shmaltz Brewing Co., a craft producer of kosher beer. “It leaves room for your own way to celebrate.”
Of course, the confusion also stems from the fact that Hanukkah, which traditionally falls near or around Christmas, is not a holiday that comes with a lot of rules or specifics – at least in a religious sense – short of the lighting of the menorah. In fact, it’s a minor event on the Jewish calendar, especially when compared with the likes of Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Passover.
While a tradition of giving children money has been a part of Hanukkah for a few centuries, the present-buying mania is a relatively new development.
The obvious reason for it? “As Christmas has grown commercially, Hanukkah has kept stride so Jewish kids don’t feel left out,” says Lesleigh Cushing, an associate professor of religion and Jewish studies at Colgate University.
In Christian homes, there’s not a whole lot to debate about gift-giving – except maybe the question of whether to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In Jewish households, Hanukkah multiplies the possibilities by virtue of its eight-day spread.
For some Jewish families, the tradition is equally weighted gifts – often small items – with one per night for the eight nights. The approach works especially well with younger children, says Richie Frieman, an etiquette expert. The idea is that children simply like a present, regardless of its size or significance.
“Little kids don’t (distinguish) what’s “big’ in value versus what they like to play with,” says Frieman.
But with other families, a big gift – and a big-gift night – is the way to go. That leaves the question of which night. While the first evening is an obvious choice, going that route often has an unintended consequence of devaluing the rest of the holiday, particularly if other nights incorporate small or token gifts – say, the old-school Hanukkah present of a pair of socks.
It’s the religious equivalent of the law of diminishing returns, says Gary Frisch, a New Jersey public relations professional. And Frisch is convinced it’s a hopelessly outdated approach.
“My kids would revolt if they got socks for Hanukkah,” he says.
Another option: starting with small gifts on the first night and building up to a grand finale on the eighth evening. Cohen favors this approach from a religious perspective, too – he says that inherent in the idea of Hanukkah is the idea of raising Jewish identification and awareness.
It’s an idea that’s designed to “grow” during the course of the holiday, as symbolized by the lighting of an additional candle on every successive evening. Just as there’s more light, there should be bigger presents: “We raise the level of celebration each night,” he says.
For others, it’s the fifth night that is the most symbolic – and the best suited to gift-giving. That’s because it’s the first evening that the majority of the candles on the menorah are lit, explains Rabbi Motti Seligson of Chabad.org, a Web site devoted to Jewish news and information.
“The night symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness,” says Seligson.