Theme nights make small gifts special during Chanukah

Socks. Board games. Underwear. Movie tickets. Musical toothbrushes?

They’re probably not the big presents most kids say they want for Chanukah. But with eight nights to celebrate, parents, especially these days, often don’t want to indulge their children with a standout gift each night. And they want the holiday to be about more than a pile of presents.

Try the Chanukah theme night, an easy, enjoyable and often inexpensive way to give gifts, with each child (and lucky adult) getting the same kind of present, such as books, pajamas or video game. Themed gifts can tame sibling rivalry, and when they are enjoyed together on the evening they’re given, the celebration becomes more meaningful, parents say.

“It helps because if it’s movie night, we know we’re watching movies. If it’s book night, I know we’re snuggling in bed that night reading the book,” says Cindy Edelstein, 45, of Pelham, N.Y., whose daughter is 12. “It takes the present to a whole evening experience.”

Traditionally, Chanukah gift-giving did not approach the level of present exchanges associated with Christmas.

The custom of a Chanukah gift began hundreds of years ago as gelt, or money. Children were given coins to play dreidel, buy candy and to give as tzedakah, a contribution to those less fortunate, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, a leader of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents rabbis in the Conservative movement.

It was only in the last century, in this country, that gift giving evolved into what it is today, as Jews were confronted with the big celebrations for Christmas, he said. Some families these days give a gift only on the first night of Chanukah, others on all eight.

Simple theme nights can feature gifts of winter staples like warm socks, hats and gloves and underwear. More elaborate nights may include current kid favorites like American Girl dolls, Hannah Montana toys and the Nintendo Wii with games and accessories.

“The themes tend to work out a lot better in terms of teaching a lesson or making them more appreciative of what they’re getting,” said Andrew Borislow, of Lower Gwynedd, Pa., who once gave his 11-year-old twin sons a Planet Earth DVD game on Green Night.

In addition to creating family time, low-cost ideas like hot chocolate and personalized mugs teach children that not every night can be Big Present Night.

In Chicago, Lisa Curran has a night devoted to a family gift, like a vacation, and a pajama party, when her children — a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son — will get new PJs, stuffed animals and a DVD to watch together. She also sets aside nights for gifts from relatives.

“It sets an expectation that she’s not getting eight gifts from every single person,” Curran says of her daughter. “She knows she’s not getting toys every night.”

She began theme nights with her daughter’s first Chanukah, concerned that her family might go overboard for the first grandchild. “We needed some kind of strategy to sort of keep the holiday under control so it wouldn’t be a general free-for-all,” says Curran, 42.

Mary Salke-Roth, of Irvington, N.Y., keeps up her mother’s tradition of toothbrush night with her 8-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, who love the musical ones. She also does underwear night, book night and music night. And there’s always one big present.

“We’ve been working on appreciating how much we have,” says Salke-Roth, 45. “It’s important that they know that the things we take for granted every day are valuable and thus are good presents.”