WASHINGTON (JTA) — My catalogue-stuffed mailbox was the first reminder that Chanukah, or rather the season of shopping, was fast approaching.
Years of Hebrew school had taught me, despite its proximity to Christmas, that Jews were not supposed to commemorate the miracle of a small jar of oil by collecting lots of loot.
Still my family photo albums are filled with pictures of my brother and me posing with our loot, smiling (or not, depending on the loot), near a plate of latkes as the chanukiyah glowed just off to the side. Those were happy days.
For centuries, Jews celebrated Chanukah surrounded by an “atmosphere of play,” says Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University. The tradition of “giving gelt to children has an old and long pedigree,” she adds, and the transition “from giving coins to [giving toys]” is an example of an old tradition taking a new form.
To get some insight into contemporary Chanukah giving traditions, I recently posted a query online to friends. Based on the responses, I sensed some things have not changed much: Be it gelt or toys, there will be lots of smiling Jewish children posing with their loot this holiday.
Yet I wondered, without the anticipation of gifts, would the festival of lights still be as festive for grown-ups? Does the atmosphere of play still surround the chanukiyah of those over the age of consent?
For Deborah Brooks of Falls Church, Va., the answer is yes.
When her parents, her two sisters, their three husbands and combined four children get together for a “Chanukah Harry” gift swap, each person gets a present — and something from a wish list they provided.
“We decided gift giving wasn’t just for the kids, and it is fun for the kids to give gifts to the parents, too,” says Brooks, 41.
For those who have given Chanukah gifts to someone for decades, it might be difficult to come up with new ideas for that wish list.
Gifting a shared experience is a great way to celebrate Chanukah, says relationship expert Andrea Syrtash.
“If you’ve been with the same person for years, give a gift that’s something new you can do with your partner,” Syrtash suggests.
Harris Lewin, 60, says his “standard Chanukah gift” to his wife of 38 years was a gift certificate to a spa. It was so well received that she reciprocated.
“Now I get one in return and we go together, as a couple,” says Lewin, an educator from Cheltenham, Pa.
Not everyone, however, has the family nearby to swap wish list gifts or a willing partner with whom to experience a shared spa gift certificate.
Rabbi Joui Hessel of the Washington Hebrew Congregation says Chanukah can be a great time to “join and form community as a way to honor and celebrate our traditions."
Without a family unit under their roof, “for so many people, the holidays can be very hard,” Hessel says. “It underscores the importance of community, to feel connected to people as well as to the traditions and faith.”
As an only child with parents in Florida and unmarried, Alexis Rice says Chanukah for her “is about the parties” and a chance to network with other young professionals.
Rice, 32, a communications director for a nonprofit in the Washington area, says she will “partake in a lot of latkes” and attend “at least three” Chanukah parties and happy hours during the holiday.
“I would be less likely to light the candles if I just went home after work,” she says. “And I just love latkes!”
Chanukah parties for grown-ups only aren’t just for the happy hour crowd, either.
Empty-nester Susan Stone, 61, a school librarian and storyteller in Evanston, Ill., says that before her two children — now in their 20s — left home, Chanukah was “always about the kids.” After her son and daughter grew up and moved out, lighting the menorah with only her husband wasn’t the same.
“Just the two us — it wasn’t exactly festive,” she says.
Stone decided to host a big open house for friends and members of her synagogue. She made latkes, scattered gelt about the house and hung an old Happy Chanukah sign. Someone brought over a guitar and the 50 or so guests, all adults, lit multiple menorahs and said the blessings together in her living room.
“It was low key, but a chance to be at home with friends for the holiday,” says Stone, who is planning another party this year.
Rabbi David Komerofsky, executive director of the University of Texas Hillel, says that while he encourages adults to celebrate and still enjoy the visceral rituals of Chanukah, he urges a grown-up understanding of the historic significance of the holiday as well.
It is believed that 2,200 years ago, Chanukah actually was Sukkot celebrated a few months late, he says. After the Hasmonean revolt against King Antiochus and the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated, the Sages were uncomfortable commemorating a military victory and the miracle of the oil was born.
“There’s no reason not to celebrate Jewish particularism at Chanukah," Komerofsky says. "It wasn’t the first time Jews fought against assimilation, and it won’t be the last. But we have survived over overwhelming odds.”
That is a much greater miracle than a small jar of oil lasting eight nights or any amount of loot on a wish list.