How to Celebrate Chanukah: 8 Days of Joyous Gift Giving

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Chanukah is one of my most favorite holidays of the year. Why? It is a happy ending story of heroism and cooperation. Also (and I swear this is secondary), it lasts for over a week and includes the traditional eight days of gift-giving.

As I am a lover of gifts and surprises, the fun of Chanukah suits me well. For others who didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday, there can be a quandry for them on what is an appropriate gift to give for Chanukah.

Every year, I get asked in person or by email what someone should get for their Jewish friend or their friend’s kids – or both! Here are some suggestions, based on my childhood traditions and what I appreciate as a Jewish adult.

Books

Seems that for about every occasion of Jewish gift-giving, books come in as the number one choice. For children, there are a number of Chanukah books that can be selected by age-appropriateness or family situation.

Some books that I have given my grandkids are: 

Last year for Chanukah (and Christmas), I gave friends and family a Chanukah pop-up book, Chanukah Lights. It is a spectacular book and a work of art, as many pop-up books can be.

The beauty of this book is that it is appropriate for adults and kids alike. Children are fascinated by each scene, which appears magically as the pages are turned. Adults appreciate the artistic renderings and paper engineering.

I suggest that adults read it to young children to reduce the urge that they have to disassemble it page by page – I say from experience! If you are not certain which books the person has read or their specific taste in books, give an Amazon, Kindle or Nook gift card.

Family Food Gifts

Every holiday has special foods that are traditional. For Chanukah, latkes (potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream) are a must. Also, rugelach and strudel are Chanukah favorites.

In fact, I make my own strudel every year and give it as gifts to lucky neighbors, family and friends. Placing the pastry on decorative glass plates makes a lovely and very delicious present. At the bottom of this post is the recipe I use.

Also consider giving fresh fruit baskets, fancy mixed nuts, dried fruits or sweets. I love a cookie gift, myself. Cheryl's Cookies has mouth-watering buttery Chanukah cookies you can buy packaged in a lovely blue-and-white holiday tin.

A word of caution: Before giving cookies, or any food gift, make sure that the recipient doesn’t keep kosher or have other dietary restrictions. If keeping kosher is the challenge, Harry and David has some kosher gift baskets that anyone (of the tribe or not) would enjoy, such as the festive kosher gift tower pictured below. Also, both Harry and David and Cheryl’s have sugar-free treats, too.

Charitable Donations

“Deeds of giving are the very foundations of the world.” - Jewish saying derived from the Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:2.

I think giving the gift of a donation can be a very moving Chanukah experience. In the Jewish religion, as I learned it, philanthropy is an obligation. One should never turn away from someone in need.

So, giving a donation on someone’s behalf is considered a “mitzvah” or good deed. Personally, I don’t think it matters if the charity is specific for Jewish people, such as the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women (JFEW) or one that helps feed people, such as a local food kitchen.

Of course, there are health-related charities, like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that could use your help.

Every year, on my behalf, my husband makes a donation to the Cincinnati Women Helping Women organization, which provides services to support women who have been raped or abused. My daughter and her family make a donation to a Secret Santa stocking in my name. Then, I am given a gift card with the item donated and the age and gender of the person receiving it. Gets me every time and makes me so very mushky!! LOVE IT!!

For my husband’s Chanukah gift, I make a donation to either Homes for our Troops or Wounded Warrior Project. Both are organizations he supports.

Of course, I have to give myself a charitable gift. Which do I choose? Because Chanukah is a holiday that is geared towards kids, I give myself a donation to the Cincinnati-based Dragonfly Foundation, an organization that brings comfort and joy to kids and young adults with cancer. May all of yours remain healthy and never have to benefit from their loving services.

Candles or Menorahs

menorah
Image: Dominic Alves via Flickr Creative Commons

Chanukah is the festival of lights, so what better gift to give than candles? Goodness knows that there are so many to choose from that have fabulous scents or are just lovely to look at when lit – or not.

Stay away from the red and green ones, as the colors traditional to Chanukah are blue and white. Also, I love menorahs, the candelabra for Chanukah. In order for it to be true to the holiday, it should have eight places for the candles to fit, along with a ninth space for the "shamas," or candle for the sole purpose of lighting the other eight candles. Anything less is not a true menorah.

I love them, as there are myriad possibilities from which to choose. I have a dancing women menorah, a wrought iron one, one made of crystal and an old brass one from my childhood. They are all special.

And if someone got me another one, it too would be very special (hint, hint!).

Kids' Gifts

For children, it has been traditional to give Chanukah gelt (money). This custom had its origin in the 17th century when parents gave kids money to give to their teachers.

Soon, (and wouldn’t you know it) the children demanded some for themselves! Poor Yeshiva students (a school for Jewish scholars) would receive gelt from wealthy families to give to their instructors.

Rabbis were okay with this custom at Chanukah, as it was a way to further celebrate the holiday. Later, in the 20th century, candy makers began making chocolate-covered coins that could be given instead of real money.

Usually the chocolate coins are covered in gold foil and sold in mesh bags. Another gift to bring children are dreidels. Dreidels are four-sided spinning tops used at Chanukah to play games or to just fill with candy.

According to Wikipedia: “The dreidel is a Jewish variant on the teetotum gambling toy found in many European cultures.

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – "a great miracle happened there").

These letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word nisht ("nothing"), Hei stands for halb ("half"), Gimel for gants ("all"), and Shin for shtel ayn ("put in").

In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—"A great miracle happened here," referring to the miracle of Chanukah. There are wooden ones, plastic ones, large ones, cloth ones, and colorful artsy ones appropriate for adult gifts.

You can never go wrong bringing a dreidel to a Chanukah celebration, especially one filled with yummy candy.


Image Credit: Flavio

Chanukah Presence

Yes, that is "presence" and not "presents."

While gifts are wonderful, there is nothing better than celebrating Chanukah with friends and family. If your Jewish friends invite you, go and enjoy. Learn about the holiday and experience it with people you care about.

Like most other festive holidays, it is made richer when people get together and enjoy the unique traditions. Telling the Chanukah story and welcoming guests is something Jewish families like to do. In fact, the more the merrier makes a better holiday party.


Image Credit: Pictures By Ann

How to Make Strudel

Here is the recipe for my strudel, which is based on a recipe from a 1971 compilation of recipes, titled: Sharing Our Best from the Canton, Ohio Hadassah Chapter.

Pastry:

  • 1 cup of butter or margarine. For some reason over the years, I have used margarine, but occasionally I use butter. Either works.
  • 8 ounces of cottage cheese. It says you can also use cream cheese, but I have always used large curd cottage cheese. And, I stayed away from the low-fat version for this.
  • 2 cups plus 2 T of flour.

Cream the butter or margarine and cheese very well using a mixer. Blend in flour. Divide dough into 4 parts and wrap each part in wax paper; chill overnight. Sometimes, I quadruple the recipe and freeze some of the balls. They thaw out well and can be used later.

When chilled, I remove one ball at a time and keep the others cold, as they roll better this way. Then, I roll out a ball into a rectangle and spread grape jam, leaving some room (approximately 1 inch) at the ends and sides.

Don't use jelly, as it is too thin and runny. I've tried different jams over the years but like good old Smuckers grape the best. Then I sprinkle or should I say load the insides with walnuts, coconut and raisins. After, I fold over the sides and the top and place on a cookie sheet.

To note, I use lots and lots of powdered sugar to keep everything from sticking to the rolling pin and the counter or board surface.

I suggest using parchment on the pan bottom. I bake in the oven at 375 degrees until well browned. In my current oven, it takes about 35 to 40 minutes.

After removal, I slide the parchment and strudels onto a wooden board and cut into 1" slices while the pastry is still warm. ENJOY and happy Chanukah!!!

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