Thanks to the accident of the Jewish calendar, and the situating of Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, we cannot help but observe that the commercialization of Christmas is now (and has been for some time) the central part of our holiday as well.
We marginalize any remembrance of miracles and history. Even the ethnic/culinary aspects of Hanukkah are overshadowed. One wonders if American Jews would even light the menorah as much as they do if the giving of gifts wasn't so strongly associated with the ritual.
Now...before you start calling me Scrooge...let me go on the record as saying that I don't have any objection per se to the giving of gifts during Hanukkah. Who doesn't like to give/receive stuff? (God knows that our economy would benefit from more gift giving too.)
But even as we exchange gifts with family and friends this year, I would encourage you to consider that there is more than one way to understand the word 'gift.'
As we typically think of the term, a gift is something that is given...a commodified object that someone had to buy, or make. That gift requires money, and/or time and energy to produce it, and for us to convey it to the person that we are giving it to. The investment that we make in the gifts that we give has value: that's the reason why it's so critical that we say thank you for what we receive: because whoever gave it to us invested a part of themselves to help make that gift happen. We should acknowledge that.
There's also a second kind of gift...Here, I think of the term 'gift' as being synonymous with the notion of 'blessing.' There are things that we have been gifted - that we have been blessed to receive. And I'm not talking about the latest video game system. I'm thinking about our health, the abundance of food that most of us (but not all of us) have access to, and the gift of relationships that we enjoy (with friends, significant others, family).
Now: where you think these gifts came from is a personal matter. Perhaps you are inclined to give credit to God. Others invoke the power of Fate or Mother Nature. The point is that, this week - during Hanukkah, our job is to become a little more humble, and acknowledge that there are forces at play in the universe that can impact us....that we're not always as in control of our lives and our destiny as we would like to think we are.
Hopefully, from that place of humility, we can be moved to a place of gratitude: to a sense of thanksgiving for the gifts that permeate our lives...gifts that we know could be taken from us in an instant.
Imagine how different our country would be if Americans everywhere somehow came to embrace this message. If, as a society, we were to come to realize that the only gifts that really mattered were the intangible ones: our health, and our sense of security - our sense of rootedness to, and in, the world. Imagine how different our relationships with one another would be - especially during this time of year. We would be relieved of the stress of having to find the "perfect" gifts for the people on our lists, and we'd be relieved of the obligation to fake our surprise/joy when someone gives us a gift that wasn't necessarily on the top (or even middle) of our lists. And instead, our only responsibility would be to ourselves: to foster a sense of gratitude for the things that truly matter in our lives, things that aren't sold online or at the mall.
Wouldn't that be a miracle worth celebrating?
Wishing you and your's a Happy Hanukkah.