Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, occurs each winter and lasts eight days. It is marked by the lighting of eight candles by a ninth "helper" candle in the menorah, a ritual candelabra. It's also marked by gift-giving, especially to children. Considered a minor holiday in the Jewish religious calendar, it's often incorrectly conflated with Christmas, which usually happens around the same time. A gift is given every night of the holiday, often increasing from smaller and inexpensive to larger and more lavish.
A dreidel is a four-sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters. The letters form the initials of the phrase "nes gadol hayah sham," meaning "a great miracle happened there." The dreidel is used to play a traditional game of chance. Dreidels can be large or small, made from wood or plastic or porcelain or almost anything under the sun. A collectable decorative dreidel -- perhaps a painted wooden one or, for older children, one made of enamel or glass -- makes an excellent gift for the first or second night of Hanukkah. You can even give a paint-your-own dreidel kit.
Another good gift for the first or second night of Hanukkah is the menorah itself. Giving a child a menorah helps her achieve a feeling of belonging and ownership of the holiday. As your child gets older, she can also light the candles herself. You can find dozens of whimsical children's menorah designs at Judaica shops. Some can be personalized for an extra-special touch.
Other Jewish-themed Gifts
You can also give a gift that's not Hanukkah-related but still invokes the specificity of the Jewish experience. For young children, try a Shalom Sesame DVD -- this is Israel's version of "Sesame Street." You could also give wooden building blocks carved with the Hebrew alphabet. For older children, a Star of David necklace might be appropriate. Kids also will appreciate puzzles and games.
Gifts in Blue
The holiday colors on Hanukkah are blue and white. Any gift in blue is more than appropriate. A fancy sweater or a pair of shoes, a piece of art or jewelry, a toy car or boat, a stuffed animal in blue -- all of those are possibilities. This option gives you tremendous creative freedom to choose a gift that your child will truly appreciate.
Books on Jewish themes are another Hanukkah present possibility. You could purchase a board book for a toddler, a coloring book for slightly older children, a book of folktales or Bible stories for pre-teens. A cookbook of Jewish foods is another good choice if your child is interested in food and cooking, as is a crafts book if your child prefers that sort of activity.
Judaism has several musical traditions that children might like to explore. A CD or mp3 player loaded with songs might make the perfect Hanukkah gift. Try choosing selections from modern klezmer bands, Israeli mizrahi music, cabaret and folk selections and whatever else might appeal to the child in question. Younger kids will like energetic selections you can dance to, while older children might be ready for more serious and contemplative material.
Another traditional Hanukkah gift is chocolate, often presented in the form of gelt or chocolate coins. Other chocolate candies or bars are generally just as welcome. You can also expand the scope of this gift to include other sweets such as dreidel-shaped cookies, blue and white jellybeans, blue raspberry gummi candies and blue-tinted rock candy and candy canes.
Cash is a traditional Hanukkah gift. The amount can range from a roll of pennies to a large-denomination savings bond. A piggy bank or similar savings bank would also be an appropriate choice, as would collectible coins.