With Chanukah about to begin, we are gearing up for a special week of menorah lighting and singing, latkes and donuts, parties, and possibly even presents.
Chanukah gifts are heavily debated, and every family and every society feels differently about them. Some decry the fact that Chanukah has become all about the presents and we’ve lost its essence, while others point to significant sources in our mesorah that point to gift giving being an appropriate practice for this yom tov.
Either way, they’ve become de rigueur and I’m not here to debate whether we’ve gotten out of hand with our gifting and our commercialization of such a holy time. But once we are giving gifts, I thought we could discuss some ways to elevate our gift giving, applicable to Chanukah and all year round as well.
Here are eight ways that we can make the gifts we give more special to the recipient:
1. Give a gift to someone who doesn’t expect it.
We all have a list of obligatory recipients, whether it’s the teachers, the einiklach, the therapists, the employees, etc. And that’s wonderful because they all have earned the appreciation we show them through the gifts. But every once in a while consider not stopping with your mandatory list. Think back over the past little while about someone who would benefit from being noticed, someone who has perhaps been there for you in some way, someone who has come to mean something to you but isn’t necessarily aware of just how much.
Surprise these special people in your life with a gift. Since it’s unexpected, it doesn’t have to be big. There are no standards like there might be when it comes to a rebbe or a mother-in-law, where you are dictated by the fear of giving a gift that is “too nebby.”
For your unexpected gift you can go small because here it really, truly is the thought that counts. It’s Chanukah; bring light to someone’s life in a beautiful and meaningful way by showing them that you appreciate and value them.
2. Give a gift that money can’t buy.
Gifts don’t have to be expensive in order to be meaningful. It doesn’t even have to be a tangible thing. Two of my favorite quotes are: “The best things in life aren’t things.” And “If you want to feel rich, count all of the things that money can’t buy.”
What are some gifts you can give that money can’t buy? You can give the gift of time, the gift of love, the gift of acceptance, the gift of a listening ear and a supportive shoulder.
How do you do this practically? For example, consider making a coupon book for your children. Every page is another privilege or treat. One coupon for an extra bedtime story, one coupon for a walk around the block with Mommy, a coupon for a half-hour later bedtime, the chance to choose supper one night, etc. They get to cash in each one once. You can include coupons for tangible items as well, like a double serving of dessert, a soda can, etc.
Then there is the privilege game that I’m sure you’ve heard of; it can be played with family, friends, coworkers, classmates, etc. It’s so popular that it even made it into Rabbi Dovid Trenk’s biography, Just Love Them. The way the game is played can vary but the common denominator is that every participant writes something they will do for someone else on a paper. What that privilege is depends on the age, relationship, and dynamics of the people playing.
“I will bake you a cake.” “I will watch your children for two hours one evening.” “I will let you play with my game for half an hour.” The privilege cards are exchanged through a game which, like I said, is varied, and everyone goes home with someone else’s privilege.
3. Give a gift with gratitude.
Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of Chanukah. It was designated as a day specifically “l’hodos ul’hallel,” to thank and give praise. Obviously, we are talking about giving thanks to Hashem, Who orchestrated the miracles we are celebrating this time of year as well as all of the day-to-day miracles large and small that He continues to perform for us.
Showing gratitude to human beings helps us build our gratitude muscles and develop the humility to acknowledge what is being done for us and the person who is doing it for us. This is a gateway to sufficiently feeling and expressing gratitude to Hashem. When you think of it this way, giving gifts can speak to the very essence of Chanukah.
So consider the people in your life who have been there for you this year, think of the people who have done good things for you, and find a way to show that gratitude and express that appreciation. More than the gift itself, make sure you write a warm and meaningful card to go along with it. That way, even if you got the gift wrong, the thought is there and the beautiful words you write will touch the heart of your recipient and help her feel loved and appreciated.
4. Give a gift that is meaningful.
One way to uplift the gifts that you give is by giving a gift that is actually uplifting. Think about the gift that you are planning to give. Is it something that will enrich the life of the person you are giving it to, or is it a chotchke that is simply fulfilling your gift giving requirement.
Think about giving someone an inspiring book that will help them think and grow, a gift with a spiritual nature connected to one of the mitzvos, like a hadlakas neiros card or negel vasser set. Give a gift with an enduring quality, one that appeals to a person’s mind, heart or soul more than to the baser side of humanity.
Give a gift that lasts and that will leave a lasting impression in the person’s life.
5. Give a gift that is personal.
One way to ensure that the gift that you are giving is meaningful is to get personal. Think about the person you are gifting to. What are their qualities, their hobbies, their passions? What is special about them and how can you tap into that when you choose their gift?
While I haven’t been in the habit of giving Chanukah gifts to my children (that’s what Bubbies are for Baruch Hashem!), this year we decided to try something different.
We had each child pick a name out of a hat. The sibling that they chose is the one they must buy a gift for. They need to think about this sibling and think of a gift that represents something special about this sibling. Something that she likes or something that reflects her personality or a unique aspect of her.
Next, each child gets a trip with a parent to the dollar store—if it survives inflation long enough to remain a dollar store!—to choose their gift.
We’ve never done this, so I don’t know yet how it will work out, but the point is to get them thinking about what makes their sibling special and to acknowledge that.
An important principle in gift giving is that it’s not about you; it’s about them. Give what they want, not what you want. We often fall into the habit of giving gifts that we’d appreciate getting. After all, if we love it, surely the recipient would too. Who wouldn’t? This is an especially common trap when gifting to spouses, because often, the giver ends up using or benefiting from the gift as well. Buy your husband your favorite novel and you’ll get to read it, buy your wife a nifty vacuum cleaner and you’ll get a clean house. It’s important to put yourself into the recipient’s shoes and try to come up with what they would like, even if it means taking yourself out of your own shoes for a bit.
When you give a gift that is personal, that is uniquely tailored to that person, even if the gift is not exactly according to their specifications, they’ll appreciate the thought that went into it.
Further the personalization by writing a personal and heartfelt note to go along with the gift, as I mentioned before. It’s not only about gratitude; it’s true for any gift. There is nothing like the gift of words to bring some warmth and light into a person’s life. And if that’s not in the spirit of Chanukah, I don’t know what is!
6. Give a gift in secret.
Full disclaimer: For those of us who are very curious people, this idea might cause more angst than it’s worth as the frustration of an unsolved mystery can really get to us.
I’ll say it anyway, and just use it with caution. As much as gift giving is like any giving, thoughtful and selfless, there are often ulterior motives and personal gain that come along with it. We cause people to be indebted to us, and human nature is such that it feels good to be on the giving end, to have people indebted to us. It helps them like us more and feel more benevolent toward us. It ensures that we will probably get gifts in reciprocation.
When we take ourselves out of the equation, we are ensuring that our goal is only to give the person what they deserve, to let them know that they are loved, cared for and appreciated without any chance for reciprocation. That is the benefit of secret gifting; it’s entirely selfless and without expectation.
The drawback, aside from causing frustration, is that gifts not only make a person feel valued, they also build the relationship. If they don’t know who is giving the gift, they can’t express gratitude and you’ve both lost an opportunity to become closer as a result of your gift.
If you want to give a gift that is purely selfless but doesn’t cause the person to become tortured by curiosity, consider giving a gift that they don’t know is a gift. Give the gift of yourself. I hinted at it under the gifts that money can’t buy, but here is your opportunity to put it into place. Listen to them when they need it, give them the gift of time you don’t have, be a source of encouragement and support. Give them the gift of your friendship and respect, without ever telling them it’s a gift. Just be there. Show up for the people in your life and you will be giving the greatest secret gift possible.
7. Give the gift of taking.
Hopefully you will not only give gifts but you will find yourself on the receiving end of them as well. Some people are better at gracious receiving than others. If this isn’t your forte, you might want to brush up on those skills. When you can gratefully and graciously accept a gift you are given, it is a gift to the giver. Everyone wants to be appreciated, so don’t hold back your appreciation! It can be hard if you have truly internalized chazal’s dictate “sonei matanos yichyeh” and are such a giving and selfless person that you actually feel bad that someone has spent time and money on getting you a gift. It can also be hard if someone has given you a gift that is a little bit clueless and shows little thought and little knowledge of your likes and tastes.
Work past that. Say, “Wow, I am so touched that you bought me this special gift. Thank you so much!” Instead of, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t! You know how much I hate it when you go to all that bother for me.”
Teach your children to do the same. While we adults have generally perfected the art of pasting a smile and exclaiming, “What a lovely gift this is!” even when we hate it, children, with all of their refreshing honesty, aren’t quite there yet. Teach your children to express gratitude appropriately even when they aren’t so enamored with the gift.
A good friend shared with me how she does this with her children. Before Chanukah or birthdays, they practice together.
“What should you say if someone gives you a dirty tissue for a present?” she asks them. “Thank you!” they chorus. “What should you say if someone gives you one holey sock for a present?” “Thank you so much! It’s such a pretty sock!”
By the time the actual gifts come, and they are inevitably better than the silly ones in their role playing, they have the response down pat. You can teach your kids to show appreciation without lying. “Wow! This bracelet is so shiny! Thank you!” is still true even if you hate the bracelet. “I love this game!” is still true even if you have an identical one sitting in the closet.
Learn – and teach – how to graciously receive, and you will be giving even when you are getting.
8. Give a gift to make amends.
We tend to gift to those closest to us, but did you ever think of gifting to those that are distant? Is there someone you’ve had a falling out with? Someone who was once close but now is no longer in your orbit? Were words exchanged and feelings hurt and hearts ripped to shreds?
Chanukah is such a beautiful time of togetherness; tap into that energy by planting the seeds of forgiveness.
Perhaps circumstances are such that the distance is necessary, that this relationship only added toxicity and pain to your life and needed to be cut short. Giving the gift doesn’t have to mean renewing the ties. It can be an “I’m thinking about you and still care about you, even if I can’t be such a big part of your life right now.”
Take a step toward healing and building through the gifts that you give.
Reprinted with permission from the Lakewood Shopper Family Room.