8 Ways to Celebrate Hanukkah that Don’t Involve Gifts

Emily Aronoff

I love celebrating Judaism with my family. Nothing brings me pleasure like sharing holidays, celebrating traditions and creating new rituals. I don’t, however, love some of the traditions that seem to have evolved to be considered very mainstream – including exchanging gifts for eight nights of Hanukkah. (I don’t love those plague toys at sederSederסֵדֶר"Order;" ritual dinner that includes the retelling of the story of the Israelite's Exodus from Egypt; plural: s'darim. or the Mensch on the Bench, either, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

There are a few reasons I want to avoid eight nights of gifts. For starters, my kids and I don’t need any more stuff – and I’m going to try to shield my little ones for as long as I can against the consumerism and commercialization of holidays (and, well, life, too). The Torah doesn’t tell us to give gifts at Hanukkah (and in fact, the Hanukkah story isn’t in the Torah!), so I’d rather invest my efforts in highlighting and celebrating other stories that Judaism can teach us that will be more relevant to my munchkins. (We make a really big deal out of Shabbat at our house, and Purim gifts are shared generously.)

By no means am I suggesting we skip Hanukkah. It’s fun and meaningful, and it’s the only time of year that we Jews see one of our holidays celebrated in public. Instead of eight days of gifts, though, I suggest instead eight ways to celebrate Hanukkah with your kids that relate the story and celebration for your enjoyment to help you refocus your approach:

1. Play with light.

Do a flashlight scavenger hunt, use glow paint, pull out your old lite-bright, make shadow puppets with a candle, have a glow party, search pinterest for light play ideas that appeal the interests and abilities of your kids- the list is enormous and tons of fun.

2. Eat some cheese.

Sure, everyone knows about the oil and that we eat foods cooked in it to celebrate this holiday – but I was thrilled to find out about a long tradition of celebrating Hanukkah by eating cheese! Even better, the origin of this tradition is credited to a strong, powerful woman from the Torah, Judith (though the story is probably a PG-13-rated tale that you might not want to share with kiddos).

Make fondue, create a fancy grilled cheese bar, or make and share tasty cheese plates – and try this recipe for lemon ricotta pancakes, specifically designed to pay tribute to Judith.

3. Hang a mezuzahmezuzahמְזוּזָהLiterally, “doorpost;” a decorative case that holds a handwritten parchment scroll of the Shema and V’ahavta. Mezuzot are placed on external and internal doorposts of homes to fulfill the commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5-9 “inscribe them [these words] on the doorposts of your house.” , knit a kippahKippahכִּפָּהA head-covering often worn during worship and while in a sanctuary, although some people choose to wear a kippah all the time; plural: kippot. In Orthodox communities, only men and boys wear kippot, while in liberal Jewish communities some women and girls choose to wear kippot.  Also called a yarmulke (Yiddish) or skullcap.   , or fashion some Star of David jewelry.

Jews today are protected by laws that declare each of us has the freedom to pursue the religion of our choosing, we can display our identity as we see fit. This Hanukkah, celebrate your Judaism!

4. Go shopping… for someone else.

Check your privilege and encourage your children to recognize theirs by helping others this holiday season. Buy and wrap a new toy, collect items in your home to donate, or otherwise find a way to give to someone in your community who is in need. See this A Social Justice Gift Guide for Hanukkah for more ideas.

5. Retell the Hanukkah story.

Your kids have probably heard some variation of the tale of Judah Maccabee. Find out what they know, decide if you want them to know more, and figure out a way that they can share the story themselves. Start with Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin’s “Kid-Friendly Version of the Hanukkah Story” then consider the following ideas:

  • Download a stop-motion animation app
  • Help them write the story out and create a book using their illustrations or images they find online (you can even print it in a real book format using an online photo book printer)
  • Dress up as the characters
  • Create and film a play
  • Choose books your kids can share with other kids…

There are so many ways to get involved in sharing the story. Choose one (or ask your children to pick) and make it a family project.

6. Host a dreideldreidelסְבִיבוֹן"Spinning top" in Yiddish (derived from German); "sevivon" in Hebrew; toy used in a children's Hanukkah game. tournament.

Gather the ones you love and play dreidel using whatever currency makes sense for your family (geltgeltכֶּסֶף"Money" (Yiddish); often given as a Hanukkah gift; used for playing dreidel. , money, poker chips, passes to excuse the holder from taking out the trash?).

Sure, you can play the classic variation, but try to make up new games and rules, too! Who can make it spin the longest? Who can aim their dreidel to spin in a particular direction? Who can predict the length of a particular dreidel’s spin?

7. Clean out your house and find something you lost.

The Hanukkah story teaches that, as the Jewish people worked to clean up the destroyed Temple, they looked for the little bit of oil that miraculously lasted through tumultuous times. It’s a safe guess that in most North American households, a thorough cleaning and organizing of closet and playrooms (or wherever else you keep your stuff!) can yield discovery of all sorts of treasures, including toys that have been forgotten, clothing you can donate, items you can repurpose, and more.

8. Play with Hanukkah music.

You could go Hanukkah caroling in your neighborhood or at a Jewish senior citizens’ home – or you could have a movie night, pop some popcorn, listen to Hanukkah music, play a few rounds of “Name that Tune” or freeze dance, make a music video of your family band, or do a karaoke night peppered with songs about Hanukkah, light, freedom, and family. (Try ReformJudaism.org’s Hanukkah Songs playlist, as well as the Hanukkah Family Favorites playlist designed for families with young children.)

I’m not totally anti-gift. Our family will exchange presents and appreciate gifts, too, but it will be a small piece in the ritual and memories we make together. The rabbis teach us, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot” While I’m giving my kids fewer giftwrapped packages, I’m hoping that resisting the urge to give them presents each night for a week will help yield a more grateful attitude that fosters a lasting happiness.