Essentially the answer to your question is “yes” -- giving gifts on Hanukkah seems to be borrowed from the Christmas tradition to do so.Some trace this borrowing back to Europe while others say this custom mainly became adopted by Jews in the 1950’s here in the United States.In any case, there is no evidence of gift-giving on Hanukkah, for example, from any Talmudic or early rabbinic source.The idea of giving gelt though did develop over time in the Jewish tradition and many have claimed that the original aim of this custom was to inculcate a sense of giving charity over the holiday, while others saw it simply as a form of gift, not too unlike the current custom.The traditional understanding of why gelt is given as a gift on Hanukkah is in order to reward children for their knowledge of the holiday and its customs.Those holding this perspective gave gelt to their children in response to answering questions about Hanukkah and after reciting the history of the holiday.In that view giving gifts would be just fine as long as they are given for the purpose of drawing a child closer to his/her roots or given to help promote the child’s Hanukkah education.Still, the idea of giving gelt is clearly accompanied by the concept of being joyous on Hanukkah and while we would like to avoid promoting materialism or imitating Christmas, appropriate and modest gift giving can certainly add to the fun and joy of the holiday as well.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, just the opposite is true. The original Jewish custom to celebrate a Jewish victory was to exchange presents, not money. Indeed, the Book of Esther notes that the Purim victory over Haman and his cohorts was to be celebrated by giving presents or delicacies to one another (Esther 9:19) The Codes define the form of the presents to be items of food. (Orech Chayyim 695:4) Some rabbis contend that the obligation to give presents of food on Purim is to enable all to have sufficient food to enjoy the obligatory feast that is required on Purim.(See Terumat HaDeshen, Sefer Mikrai Kodesh, Chanukah Purim By Rav Zvi Pesach Frank, p.152)
On Chanukah there is no obligation to have a feast (Seuda). At issue is the rationale for this difference between Purim and Chanukah. Common scholarship makes the following distinction. On Purim, Haman’s goal was to totally obliterate the Jewish people. No Jew was to be left alive. To the extent that victory meant that physically Jews were yet alive, the celebration was to be at a feast that was to be physically enjoyable. Chanukah was different. Jews that assimilated were not to be punished. The purpose of the enemy was not to kill Jews but to eradicate Jewish Mitzvot and culture. It was a kolturkamft. As such, there was no need for a physical feast.
I suggest that since the Book of Esther contends that upon victory presents to manifest communal friendship are in order, and a feast of food in not mandatory, perhaps the gift giving was retained but not with food. It mattered not whether it was money or just plain presents. It had nothing to do with taking customs from other religious.
Thank you for your excellent question. It is quite clear that Hanukkah gelt is Jewish in origin.
In short, not necessarily.
The following information is from the Jewish Outreach Institute web site.
Savings bonds, checks, and small chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil-these are the modern incarnations of the traditional gift known as Hanukkah gelt. “Gelt” is a Yiddish term for “money.”
Although it is an old and cherished custom, the roots of gelt-giving go back much further than the Middle Ages, the era in which the custom is usually said to have originated. Even though it is not mentioned in either the Talmud or the Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law), the importance of coins in the history of the Hasmonean period is undeniable.
The First Book of Maccabees records that in 142 B.C.E., 22 years after the Temple was recaptured, Simon the Maccabee, the surviving son of Mattathias, finally brought independence to Judea. Syria’s King Antiochus VII declared to Simon: “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country.” (I Macabees 15:6) The ability to mint their own coins was a concrete expression of the newly-won independence of the Jewish people.
During the following years of the Hasmonean dynasty, the first Jewish coins in history were issued. Most depicted cornucopia, symbolic of the prosperity of the country during these years. One of the coins minted by the last of the Hasmonean kings, Antigonus Matityahu (40-37 B.C.E.), portrayed the seven-branched menorah on one side and the Table of Shew Bread on the other, both symbols of the restored Temple. Some scholars conjecture that these designs may actually have been intended to remind the people of Hanukkah, which had been neglected during the waning yeasrs of the Hasmonean dynasty.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jewish coinage ceased until modem times, except for a brief period during the Bar Kochba Revolution (132-135 C.E.). As a result, no Jewish coins were available to distribute when the custom of Hanukkah gelt- giving emerged as an important part of the festival during the Middle Ages. At that time, it was traditional to give Hanukkah gelt to the local Jewish teacher; in fact, it was his primary means of support. When the tradition was expanded to include giving coins to children, it became a way to emphasize the importance of Jewish education and the study of Torah.
Since the founding of the State of Israel, Jewish coinage has become a fascinating part of numismatics worldwide. In 1958, the Bank of Israel initiated a program of striking special commemorative coins for use as Hanukkah gelt. In a brilliantly conceived move to link the modern world with the ancient history of our people, the first Hanukkah coin portrayed exactly the same menorah that had appeared on the Last Maccabean coins of Antigonus Matityahu, 1,998 years earlier. Each year since 1958 (except 1964-71), the Hanukkah gelt coin has honored a different Jewish community around the world. In 1972, a silver coin was struck showing a 20th century Russian menorah, a rather clear message to the world about Soviet Jewry. On the 200th anniversary of the United States' Declaration of Independence, the 1976 Hanukkah coin featured a colonial American menorah. Other issues through the years have featured menorahs from many different lands where Jews have lived.
Whatever your source for Hanukkah gelt, it is always a wonderful tradition to put some of what you receive into a tzedakah box in order to share your good fortune with those in need or for a good cause.
In families where gifts are exchanged instead of gelt, children can choose to donate one of their gifts to the needy, or use saved money to purchase a gift for the less fortunate.
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