For Hanukkah this year, my three children will get no presents.
No large ones, no small ones. None.
It’s not because they’ve been naughty. Just the opposite, in fact.
For the past three years, we’ve celebrated the eight days of Hanukkah doing a different good deed every day, instead of exchanging presents.
To say that my offspring were thrilled when I announced this new policy would be a lie. What they were was confused.
“Nothing?” My oldest, then 13 and thus with the longest memory of Hanukkahs past, double-checked. “Not even tooth-brushes?”
“On the first night of Hanukkah, my mommy gave to me,” sang his younger brother and sister. “Absolutely no-o-thingggggg!”
They were also a bit confused about what constituted a good deed. Or why, exactly, we were doing them.
We were doing them because my kids are grossly over-privileged. We may not be in the 1% in the United States, but compared to the rest of the world, my three kids who share a room, don’t get an allowance but still have to do chores, and tragically lack the iPhones, hover-boards and big-screen TVs (not even cable!) that some would have you believe are critical to a happy childhood, are among the luckiest people on the planet. As a result, they have so much stuff. For at least eight nights out of the year, I would like their hearts to be as overflowing as their toy chests and book shelves.
But I don’t just want to impose the good deeds from above. Being forced to learn is never the best way to learn (I do make exceptions for multiplication tables). So I asked my kids what they thought we could do.
Blank looks all around.
I suggested they think about what people might need that we have too much of and could provide.
“Well,” my middle son, then 9, ventured. “They’re collecting books at my dancing school so little kids who are waiting for their sisters to get out of class can have something to read. The parents, too.”
Perfect! We went through our overflowing shelves, selected a cart full of books my brood had outgrown and piled them into the designated cabinet at his dancing school.
Even before we’d put our coats back on, a group of toddlers had made a beeline for our donation, and were eagerly leafing through them.
“They like them!” My daughter, then a few weeks short of turning 6, exclaimed in surprise, seemingly making the connection about the Joy of Giving™ for the first time.
Over the next few days, we dropped off canned food at a synagogue homeless shelter, donated clothes to a church rummage sale (‘tis the season to be ecumenical!) and wrapped gifts for a toy drive.
Along the way, something very interesting happened. The whining and the re-purposing of Christmas carols to decry my parenting stopped. Instead, we said prayers, spun dreidels, sang Hanukkah songs, piled applesauce on our latkes, and that was it, no more discussion about who was or wasn’t getting what. (They even stopped talking about what their friends had gotten, so take that, peer pressure!)
The next morning, the first question out of my kids’ mouths was, “What good deeds are we doing today?”
I realize that I’m hardly the first mom, Jewish or otherwise, who is trying to clamp down on the commercialism rampant to the December holiday season. There are lots of ways to approach the dilemma (even Oprah is down with it). Some Christian parents limit their children to three gifts because that’s how many Jesus got (remember gold, frankincense and myrrh?). This allows moms and dads to respond to attacks of Christmas greed with, “So you think you deserve more gifts than God?”
I’ll be honest, finding eight charitable activities without repeating is a challenge (you can check out some other folks’ suggestions, here and here). One year, because my oldest son was playing Katherine in his (all-boy) school’s production of “Henry V,” we made our good deed buying a pair of women’s shoes that could fit a teenager’s foot, then donating them to the costume closet for future thespians with the same size issue. Another time, when a friend called in a panic because he’d forgotten his homework, my middle son reading him a page of math problems over the phone qualified. And I’ll admit it, one particularly uninspired day, I allowed my daughter to count the fact that she’d held the door for an elderly woman struggling to get her shopping cart though.
The fact is, these don’t have to be huge good deeds (though my scientifically minded 12-year-old did inform me that, this year, he plans to invent an artificial, universal blood type that could be used for all transfusions, and to cure cancer). They just have to be conscious ones.
By instituting a One Good Deed a Day Policy, I put my children on the alert for opportunities to help someone else. Opportunities they otherwise might pass by without noticing.
The accepted rule of thumb is once you do something for 21 consecutive days, it becomes a habit, and then you perform the task automatically (though others say: triple that). Eight days once a year is a start.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries, romance, and the non-fiction, “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten.”
This story was first published in 2015.