In my family, Chanukah was (and is) observed primarily as a children’s holiday. No gifts are exchanged from children to adults or between adults. Chanukah, when I was growing up, was about lighting candles (for many years these were the only blessings I could say in Hebrew because I had memorized them), and eating pre-made latkes (potato pancakes). My mother is generally a good cook but she cannot bake and she cannot make “Jewish food”, but we kids got gifts — until we reached college age. After that, it was just candles and latkes. We were taught that the heart of the holiday was the struggle for religious freedom, which resonated with what I learned about American history in school. Chanukah wasn’t just “the Jewish Christmas.”
When I became an adult, I lit candles in my own home, usually without the latkes and definitely without the gifts. I fell in with a motley crew of other adults who were were a religiously-mixed bunch–different flavors of Jewish, varieties of Christian, some pagans, a Buddhist, and at least one atheist.
Most of the time, my Christian friends spent the Christmas holidays out of town, with their parents, and the rest of us observed our holidays individually. Collectively, however, we had our own tradition, which was to observe Twelfth Night. We would gather for a large group dinner, to which you could contribute a dish, wine, and/or money. When the group was small, everyone bought a small gift for everyone else, but over the years, the group grew and expanded to the point where we went to Secret Elf and later to a version of White Elephant which was huge fun. We always had a Lord of Misrule and many years there were Christmas crackers on the tables, and the dinner always ended with a flaming pudding.
These were generally child-free affairs even once we started to have children. Time took its toll, though. People moved away from NYC, family traditions took a larger role, and eventually the dinners were abandoned. By then, I had become a Single Mother by Choice (SMC), and we were celebrating Chanukah at home.
I make a bigger deal over Chanukah than my parents did–though in truth, there simply wasn’t as much on offer in the local Jewish community when I was a child. When my daughter was little, we would go to Chanukah festivities at the local Y and/or at our synagogue. There were gifts, of course, and Chanukah gelt (money). I used to buy a new book every year, either a new Chanukah story or a Jewish folktale (“used to” here being a relative term, since my most recent purchase was just a couple of years ago), and every night of the holiday we would read a different story that seemed appropriate to the season (we read them at other times of year too).
We light candles (we both say the blessings) and I give my teenager presents. Some years I get presents from my friends, though I’ve stuck to the family tradition that children do not give gifts to their parents. (Sometimes, when my daughter was younger, I would buy something for myself and wrap it, because it bothered her when I didn’t get any presents.) I freely admit that in some years, the gifts I buy for my daughter are for me, too (movies, Wii games, books we both want to read).
I make latkes from scratch, though not every night, and sometimes we play dreidel (badly, lol). Sometimes we go to the Chanukah dinner at our synagogue, but not this year because it’s the same night as the big winter concert at my daughter’s school. We sing songs, sometimes, and still read some of the old stories, and it’s a nice family time.