History tells us that after the Maccabees defeated King Antiochus’ army, a great celebration ensued. The Temple in Jerusalem was liberated and restored, and men and women alike sang songs and made sacrifices. It was indeed a joyous affair.
However, at no point during this festive occasion did individuals present each other with gifts. There was no shiny wrapping paper or glittery bows. There wasn’t even a neighborhood Hallmark store.
So, when did gift giving become so emblematic of Chanukah? And why? Historians say there are a number of reasons. And no, it’s not just the proximity of the Christmas holiday. Although, that certainly played a role.
In the United States during the late 19th century, Chanukah was rapidly losing its luster — particularly in the eyes of Conservative and Reform Jewish immigrants. Sandwiched bet-ween the High Holidays in the fall and Purim and Passover in the spring, the holiday was in decline and rapidly losing its appeal in favor of Christmas.
“Jewish leaders were always saying they were trying to revive Chanukah, but they weren’t getting very far,” said Deborah Weiner, a research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “They would try to get people to light Chanukah candles and tell the story of the Maccabees, but I think the power of the Christmas celebration was overwhelming. It was difficult for them to make much headway.”
Weiner explained that by the time World War I ended, Chanukah was amid a complete revival. Yiddish press outlets were starting to describe the Christmas holiday, and by the 1920s newspapers began carrying ads for Chanukah gifts.
That decade, which ushered in a new era of consumerism throughout the country, also coincided with what was becoming a more well-off Jewish population, Weiner said. Foreign immigrants had established themselves financially and possessed the disposable income necessary for gift giving.
“All these things came together at the right time,” Weiner said. “You had upwardly mobile Jewish immigrants and their children, and you had marketers in this new consumer society starting to heavily market to the Jewish community and promote the idea of giving gifts at Chanukah.”
The holiday never completely merged into Christmas because as buying presents became common practice, Jewish educators implored Jewish parents to reinforce the story of the Maccabees. Children’s books on the story of Chanukah were published, and tales of their revolt accompanied gift ads in the newspapers.
“These kinds of stories legitimized the gift giving that started to go on,” Weiner said.
Chanukah was placed at the forefront, especially in the homes of loosely observant Jews, and the trend continued to strengthen, most not-ably after World War II. Following the Holocaust, Jewish psychiatrists and rabbis began promoting giving presents to help bolster Jewish pride and ward off any dejection about not being able to celebrate Christmas.
“In a sense, there was an attempt to make kids living post-Holocaust happy that they were Jewish and not feel that they were losing out,” said Dr. Valerie Thaler, assistant professor in the department of family studies and community development at Towson University. “That’s consistently a problem with Jewish children today. They often feel they are in the minority and they are missing out on some great celebrations that others are able to celebrate.”
Har Sinai’s Rabbi Benjamin Sharff has an additional theory. He points out that too often our culture today focuses on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days and not on the fact that the holiday stands for a Jewish fight for religious freedom.
“By not placing that emphasis, already it then becomes easier to sell it in sort of a more child-oriented kind of way. Once you sell it as a child-oriented kind of holiday, it’s immediately tied into Christmas, so for a long time we were in this effort to make Chanukah feel like Christmas,” Rabbi Sharff said.
“I think it’s a response to Christmas really just taking over. It’s trying to help our kids have some sort of religious identity. But, to define it against, or in light of, Christmas celebrations — which in a lot of ways lost its religious identity — I think has done a disservice to both Christians and Jews.”
David Snyder is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org