Hanukkah always starts at sunset on the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the date can fall anywhere from the end of November to the end of December on the Gregorian calendar that we commonly use. This year, the holiday kicks off on Saturday, December 8th–and lasts through December 16th.
That’s because the holiday lasts for 8 nights and 8 days. It celebrates an event which began in 175 BCE, when Antiochus IV invaded Judea, sacking the temple and stopping the services. His defiling of the temple grew even worse over the years until it finally provoked a revolt. In 165 BCE, the temple was liberated and, to rededicate it, the priests went in search of any holy oil they could find. A container was found but it held only enough oil to burn for one night and one day. But, by a miracle, the oil remained lit for 8 nights and 8 days, until new oil could be prepared. This is the basis of Hanukkah and the 8 night and 8 day celebration.
As Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is really a very minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. But its close proximity to Christmas has resulted in it gaining more importance. For some families, part of that is the tradition of giving the children a gift on each of the eight nights. It was a tradition when I was growing up, and it became a tradition when I had my own family.
But how do you do this and keep the expense under control? Actually, it is not that hard if you take advantage of some of the traditional items available at Hanukkah time plus get a bit creative. One traditional gift to each child was their own dreidel – a spinning top used to play a game based on the letters marked on each side of the top. While it is certainly possible to purchase very expensive dreidels, generally they can be bought for a few dollars each. Another traditional gift was chocolate gelt. Gelt is money and at Hanukkah time, I would buy the foil wrapped chocolate coins–again, a not very expensive item. The chocolate gelt was always given on a night after the dreidel so we could play dreidel with the “coins” before the children peeled back the foil and ate their chocolate.
One night we gave real gelt – a few dollars, based on the child’s age, wrapped in Hanukkah gift paper. The children also received gifts from two sets of grandparents and an aunt. They got one of these gifts on each of three nights. For the remaining two nights, we had one small item, such as a book or a small toy and then, for the final night, we had one expensive gift … something that in today’s dollars would probably cost around $50 to $75.
As the children grew older, of course, we made some slight adjustments to the gifts. But because we had started this when they were very young (and we never went overboard with high-end gifts), they grew accustomed to the tradition we had established. The small gifts never drew a complaint, and that’s how Hanakkuh stayed fun–and affordable–for the entire family.