Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas!
When I wrote this column with Father Tom Hartman, my beloved friend and partner in all things God Squadian, our favorite column of the year by far was the one we wrote together just before Hanukkah and Christmas. To flip things around theologically, I would write what I loved about Christmas and Tommy would write what he loved about Hanukkah. I have tried to continue this custom by writing different versions of what Tommy might have said, but such a task is too hard for me now. It imagines that he is still with us, and I cannot hold on to that mortal hope any longer now that his immortal soul is with God in Heaven.
This year I am writing about something that is part of Hanukkah and Christmas but is often maligned and misunderstood: holiday gift-giving. Giving gifts is clearly a part of Christmas traditions because of the gifts of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus. Gifting during Hanukkah is not at all a natural or theologically organic part of the holiday, though giving Hanukkah gelt (coins for children) was a feature of Hanukkah celebrations in Germany, and in the face of Christmas gift-giving the custom of Hanukkah presents grew in America as a way to even things out for Jewish children, who might be suffering from Santa and Christmas tree envy.
So here we are, all of us in this holiday season committed to giving gifts to those we love, we work with and who serve us in myriad ways. Here are my suggestions for how to give spiritually acceptable Hanukkah and Christmas gifts.
Please remember to give to your mail person and to your pharmacist, beautician, the folks at the firehouse and the police station — and basically anyone who serves you throughout the year. Your attitude toward those who serve you says a lot about you and is appreciated by them more than you know. Home-baked cookies and gift coupons for coffee and a note of thanks are all you need. You are not royalty, and they are not serfs.
Adults giving gifts to children does not absolve children from giving thoughtful gifts to adults. Let the younger ones go mall crawling with older children to buy gifts for parents and grandparents. This begins their life training in figuring out what the people they love need and love. For children with no budget for gift buying, have them make up a holiday coupon book as their gift. Each coupon could be redeemable for an immediate cleanup of their room, a car wash, a dish wash or, best of all, a hug and a kiss. You and I know that some days the only effective antidote to a cruel world is a hug and a kiss from a beloved child.
Gifts for children are the most challenging because the children in your life have already been bombarded with advertising aimed at getting them to think they need everything they see in the media that suffuses their vulnerable lives. So, consider these guidelines:
- Give memberships to museums.
- Give tickets to concerts.
- Give toys that make them think and solve puzzles.
- Give toys that make them build something.
- Give books (yes, I am OK with e-books, though I still love the feel and smell of real books).
The best holiday gift I ever received or saw, was a gift from Tommy. I was not the only one in his life who received such a gift, but it was marvelous. Tommy would write you a note and tell you how much he loved you and appreciated you in his life, and he would then say that his present to you was that he wanted to spend an entire day with you, doing whatever you wanted to do. It was the gift of time wrapped up in love. Try it.
I gave Tommy a Christmas present one year that he treasured, surprising me since most of my gifts are goofy and impulsive. One year, I got my wife, Betty, two St. Bernard puppies. One of them was returned by the end of Hanukkah. Anyway, one Christmas, I sent Tommy a piece of frankincense and a piece of myrrh with a note, "Dearest Tommy. Merry Christmas. Here's some frankincense and some myrrh … get your own gold! Love, Marc."
So this Hanukkah and this Christmas, give thoughtful, spiritually acceptable gifts to those whose lives have touched your life. They don't have to cost money, but they ought to cost a fair bit of love.
God bless us, one and all!
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at email@example.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.