“Daddy, look what I found!” my son, Eitan, exclaimed.
I’d just walked into the apartment after teaching Hebrew school that morning. Our plans for a family party in the afternoon had been canceled since our daughter woke up with a fever, but that didn’t stop Eitan from discovering the towers of wrapped Hanukkah presents my wife and I had hidden under the table behind the couch.
“Mommy told me you didn’t put the presents there but I don’t think I believe her. It was really you two, right?” he asked.
My son has known for a while that Santa Claus doesn’t visit our house. We laid that idea to rest a few years ago when he started asking about the heavyset man in the red and white coat at the mall. But we never really discussed any parallel figure who comes to bring presents to the Jewish boys and girls.
His eyebrow was raised high with skepticism and his lips pursed as he waited for an answer. His tone of voice said that he didn’t believe us for a second. However, I caught a twinkle in his eye that said that maybe, just maybe, something magical had happened.
“Wait, what presents?” I said.
Eitan looked confused for a moment and pointed at the floor next to him.
I grinned and walked across the room, shooting a surreptitious wink toward my wife as I passed her. Stopping next to my son, I looked at the gifts behind the couch. I feigned astonishment.
“Where did those come from?”
“Daddy,” Eitan said, rolling his eyes with the expert skill of a teenager, “I know it was you.”
“Wasn’t me,” I shrugged. “I think I’d have remembered wrapping all those presents and stashing them back there.”
“It’s true,” my wife chimed in. “Daddy isn’t very good at wrapping presents. The last time he went to wrap a present, he put the gift down so hard that he ripped the paper right in the middle.”
Eitan’s eyebrows rose again.
“I think you guys are just messing with me,” he said. But I could tell his resolve was weakening.
“It must have been Hanukkah Harry,” I said. “He must have stopped by while we were all out this morning and put those presents there for you and your sister.”
I didn’t have many options for a person associated with a Jewish holiday who could have planted the gifts. Elijah the Prophet is usually the go-to but he plays more of a role at Passover. I thought of Judah Maccabee, the leader of the Jewish army in the Hanukkah story. His strength and stealth, however, were more useful in defeating the Syrian Greeks than in depositing Hanukkah presents. So, I ended up opting for the old Saturday Night Live character, though I’ll admit I even briefly considered the Friends holiday armadillo.
My wife and I maintained our commitment to the story through the rest of the holiday. Our son still wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but we never cracked. Eitan saw us clearly looking for specific gifts to give to him and his sister on particular nights and used it as evidence that we must have known what gifts were there in advance. We played it off, though. We told him Hanukkah Harry gave us a list beforehand so we would know what each child should get each night.
I’m not sure we ever fully convinced Eitan that Hanukkah Harry was real or that his presents had appeared by magic (aside from the magic of credit cards, of course). He knew, for instance, that certain presents were from us and others came from his grandparents, even though we never said specifically how each gift arrived at our apartment.
I’m not sure it matters, either way. Hanukkah, at its core, commemorates a military victory over a much larger foe. The rabbis incorporated the story of the miracle of the oil later so future Jews would focus their attention more on God and prayer than on winning a war. We are not fighting the Syrian Greeks today and we may have shifted from oil to candles to keep our menorahs lit; however, we are still working to ensure our traditions continue and that our children appreciate their connection to ritual, their family and their history. If we can succeed in that goal, then my wife and I will have truly achieved something magical.
About the author
Aaron Yavelberg is a father, husband, son, brother, cousin, friend, writer, social worker and part-time teacher. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, son and daughter. Follow him on his blog, Sleeping on the Edge, where a version of this post first appeared, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.