Parents count cost as gift-giving turns Chanucah into a ‘pseudo Christmas’


Doughnuts, latkes and the menorah are the staples of Chanucah, loved by children and families around the world.

But a hunger for ever-more expensive gifts and extravagant celebrations means that, for many people, the Festival of Lights has become a financial and logistical nightmare.

Parents, children and charities have described the “minefield” that they encounter and their fears that Chanucah has now become a “pseudo-Christmas”, with the miracle of the Maccabees’ oil lost under an avalanche of television advertising, competitive gift-giving and overt commercialism.

Mother-of-two Rachel Cohen said her six-year-old daughter’s friends have lofty expectations, with many already owning iPod Touch hand-held devices. She said such costly gifts were “unnecessary” for children only a couple of years into their school life.

Mrs Cohen, from Mill Hill, north west London, is determined not to let Chanucah turn sour: “I don’t really get the kids a present every single night. We have to keep it simple or it gets out of hand. I get them chocolate coins but not something extravagant every day. We don’t have an endless pot of money. People get carried away, especially in our community. Some kids are very spoilt.”

One organisation working to educate youngsters about the value of money is the Big Birthday Appeal. Launched by parents in Altrincham, Cheshire, it works to manage children’s expectations and promote the importance of charity and sharing.

Co-founder Suzy Glaskie said encouraging a culture of giving, rather than taking, was all-important at Chanucah.

“There’s an expectation that children are going to be given quite sophisticated technology presents at a young age.

“We work to get them to see that, yes, they should have lovely things, but there are other kids who do not have the same things. We try to get them to go without something — to give up one of their presents, or some money.”

Mrs Glaskie sympathised with parents facing the all-consuming commercial dominance of the Christmas market, and the subsequent increase of pressure that it puts on those celebrating the Jewish festival.

“When we started in 2001, we could see the way things were going, but we did not expect it to get this bad,” she explained. “We are trying to battle the ‘me, me, me’ culture. We want the kids to appreciate what they have.”

Children may anticipate receiving a gift on each of the eight nights of the festival but where once small presents — dreidels and chocolate Chanucah gelt — were sufficient, there is now an expectation of far more.

The most commonly requested items include hi-tech devices such as iPads, smart phones, games consoles, flat-screen televisions and designer clothes — each with a substantial price-tag.

Mrs Glaskie explained: “Parents find that, by the sixth night of Chanucah, the children have lost the ability to appreciate the presents. By the end of the week, it’s just a case of ‘what am I getting today?’ It doesn’t help the kids. It doesn’t make for a happy teenager or young adult either.”

Similar problems exist in strictly Orthodox communities. While the gift-lists of children in Stamford Hill and Gateshead are less gadget-led, there remains substantial expectation, warned charity founder Chani Rapaport.

“There’s a lot of peer-pressure in dressing nicely and buying clothes in shops where they charge a fortune. There’s pressure for Charedi children to have the latest pencil-case and stationery,” she explained.

“I really feel it’s wrong. People should enjoy Chanucah with baking and doughnuts, but now it’s all about instant gratification. There is a lack of education and of priorities. People get carried away.”

Mrs Rapaport runs the Kids N’Action play scheme in Hackney and Haringey, north London. It organises activity days, including canoeing, swimming and singing, for children from low-income families during school holidays.

She believes Chanucah has now “lost its feeling”, with families preoccupied with copying others rather than enjoying traditional festival activities.

“It’s become a minefield. The main thing should be to show children that you can have a nice time without spending a lot of money.”

One person trying to keep things in perspective is 11-year-old Lauren Rose. She has presented her parents with a “dream wish-list” of hoped-for presents, totalling around £300, but is certainly not expecting to receive them all.

She said: “I want some new shoes from Converse and also a new iPhone. Everyone at school is getting one. But I’m not expecting a lot of things because it’s all so expensive.

“Last year I got eight small presents. The shoes I asked for are around £50, so I’d be happy with just those instead of eight presents.”

Lauren, a pupil at Yavneh College in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, also believes the meaning of Chanucah is now largely overlooked. “People are expecting presents but not everyone understands the festival. If a family doesn't have enough money, it's hard," she said

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive