Hanukkah is probably a Jewish child's favorite holiday. Presents, dreidels, jelly donuts, presents, decorations, presents. Some people think that Hanukkah has become a bit too commercialized, too materialistic. They have a point. Our great grandparents would scarcely recognize the concept of giving extravagant presents on Hanukkah, let alone eight gifts, as some do. Back in the day, Hanukkah was a fairly minor holiday and a child might receive a few coins, a bit of "gelt," from dad or grandpa. But today, many American Jews feel they have to compete with Christmas.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the scale of Hanukkah has expanded over the years to match the growing commercialization of Christmas. Christmas is flashy, bright, and culturally dominant. It's an obvious draw for children, Christian or not. And with Jewish assimilation rates as high as they are in the predominantly Christian United States, many Jewish parents probably feel (even subconsciously) they have to keep the attention of children who see the appeal of Christmas all around them this time of year. It's not enough to say, "Christmas is great, but it's not our holiday. Here, eat some donuts." Many Jewish parents are now like, "Open your eight gifts. See, our holidays are just a cool as theirs. Stay Jewish, kid."
In fact, there are parallels between this phenomenon and the Hanukkah story. Hanukkah is an historic account of an outmatched band of Jewish guerrillas who fought the active and passive attempts by Greeks and Jewish elitists to assimilate the Jewish people into the dominant Greek culture. The Maccabees fought to preserve Jewish culture, ultimately winning their religious freedom from Greek occupiers. Unlike the Greeks of the time, The United States is an overall benevolent force for Jews, but the struggle to preserve one's identity as a cultural minority continues today.
The truth is, I don't really care why Hanukkah has become such an important holiday for American Jews because, at the end of the day, Hanukkah is a pretty awesome, rich holiday with important messages. And giving and receiving gifts is pretty nice too, provided we don't lose sight of the deeper meaning of the holiday.
The Hanukkah story is about a fight for the preservation of Judaism but it is also a story of miracles; miracles throughout the history of the Jewish people and a reminder that miracles can happen today. This is symbolized by lighting the chanukiah, or menorah, commemorating the miracle of a single day's worth of oil that burned for eight days in the rededication of the Holy Temple.
The symbolism of the light has powerful meaning today, as it did then, of mitzvot, goodness and positivity triumphing over evil and negativity. Even when it seems like there is no end to the darkness and wickedness in the world, a seemingly small force can help us restore light and positivity, sometimes with the help of a miracle or two.
One of the best Hanukkah songs sums it up well:
בָּאנוּ חוֹשֶׁךְ לְגָרֵשׁ
בְּיָדֵינוּ אוֹר וָאֵשׁ
כָּל אֶחָד הוּא אוֹר קָטָן
וְכֻלָנוּ אוֹר אֵיתָן
סוּרָה חוֹשֶׁךְ הָלְאָה שְחוֹר
סוּרָה מִפְּנֵי הָאוֹר
We came to banish the darkness
In our hands are light and fire
Each individual is a small light
And together our light is mighty
Away darkness, begone blackness
Away from the light
All of our Hanukkah-themed jewelry can be found here. Some examples below: