Early on, we learned that trying to make Chanuka more special by giving gifts all eight nights was a recipe for tears. The holiday became about what they were “getting” that night. Somehow, there was built-in disappointment, as so much rode on that one gift. An unattractive greed seeped in, no matter how carefully we explained to the kids how things were going to work over the course of the eight nights. So, here’s what we began to do, and it gave Chanuka its own shape and specialness, separate and distinct from Christmas.
The primary activity for each night of Chanuka was the lighting of the candles. Each kid had his or her own menorah, whether an old family one or a homemade one. They got to pick out their own candle color scheme, put them in themselves, and most exciting, light them. On the first night of Chanuka, each child got a stack of gifts, big and small, but a nice pile to tear through. And that was it for the gifts.
Aside from the menorahs, the constant for Chanuka every year was a big jar of dreidls that came down from the attic, along with a stack of Chanuka books and videos collected over the years. After that, we had something out of the ordinary planned for each of the other seven nights. One night we’d have a party with each child allowed to invite a friend and their family, with latkes (the smell, oh, the smell), decorations, dreidl, candles, and the exchanging of small gifts (dollar store type stuff). Every year, we’d find some Chanuka-related crafts. (Check the internet, there’s plenty of them!) Another night, we’d have dinner with friends. It didn’t matter if they were Jewish or not; the idea was to share our traditions with others. One night we’d go ice-skating or night sleigh-riding, or to a movie. Another night, we would do some charitable activity, whether it was to provide meals to a homeless shelter, or bring donations to a community center.
Usually, by this point, it was enough for the remaining nights to light candles and eat more latkes. Everyone was happy and sated, and it was, for all, a Happy Chanuka!