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Credit: Maor X, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Can you believe Hanukkah is almost here? I can’t. As I’m writing this, there are a million things to do and not enough time. Life has been getting frantic again, something I vowed I wouldn’t let happen after COVID-19. This was a chance to learn, I thought; we don’t have to be this busy all the time. I forgot that the reason we are busy is because we have rich, full lives with many opportunities to do, feel and experience good things—and people. It’s hard to say no. 

But when getting ready for a holiday feels stressful, we’re doing something wrong.

I know exactly what it is I’m personally messing up: Hanukkah gifts. They are not necessary for a good holiday experience, yet, I long ago bought into the gift-giving fun. Show me some glitter and shiny bows, and I’m yours. Finding the right presents, picking out a color scheme for the wrapping and making each present as decorative as possible is my favorite part of Hanukkah—and what makes me the most anxious.

Did I buy the right things? How many days are left? Did I spend the same on both kids so it’s not unfair? Will they like it or will they think I’m clueless? Is a really cool T-shirt okay, or will that fall under ‘Yuck-I-got-clothes-for-Hanukkah?’ Have I missed any hints? And before you think my kids are monsters, all of this is in my own head.

I have gift-anxiety. My presents need to be perfect. When my kids unwrap something, they should be ecstatic, they should be surprised, they should be so, so happy and remember the moment forever. Seriously, if you’re not crying tears of joy, I’m already searching for the receipt.

I feel this way every birthday too, and frequently find myself wishing my kids were still toddlers. Back then, gifts were easy.

Well, except for the super-cool roaring dinosaur that scared my son so much when he opened the box, he avoided it for years. But, you know, that was an exception.  

The question is, if picking out gifts stresses me out this much, why still do it? I’m not sure I know. Part habit, I guess; part not being able to pass up the chance to spoil my kids. I mean, eight nights, eight opportunities to make their day. I could buy seven really dumb presents and still come out a winner.

Where did all this start? Doesn’t it all make things a little too similar to Christmas? Hanukkah gifts are not traditional, they only were added later under pressure from the majority culture. Americans in general go a little nutty during this season, (hello, black Friday) and only in America do Jews give gifts for Hanukkah.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the scholar in residence at the UJA-Federation of New York. In a 2019 article in Time Magazine, he said:

“[Parents] saw that [giving gifts] was a way of creating joy around the time of Hanukkah. I think it wasn’t to be like Christmas, it was so that Jewish children would have joy on Hanukkah. I know it sounds like a narrow difference, but the distinguishing factor is, we didn’t want to do Christmas — we wanted to have joy.”

Which, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms. What, we can’t have joy without materialistic things? The neurotic way I behave around the whole gift-giving conundrum makes me think I could be more joyful without presents.

Of course, the moment those words are out of my mouth, I regret them. Hanukkah without presents is like latkes without sriracha, like hummus without Creole seasoning, like Shabbat dinner without cheese: it’s not who we are as a family.

And so we’ll do things the way we’ve always done them and I’ll drive the whole family a little crazy. After all, there are worse things than a mother with gift-anxiety. Have I told you what Pesach is like at our house?