A Brief History on Why Jews Give Presents at Hanukkah

Arthur Levine, author of The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol, shares what he hopes families take away from this magical story.

Posted in , Dec 9, 2020

Arthur Levine; Photo credit: Tess Thomas

This holiday season Santa Claus is getting a little support from Hanukkah hero children’s book author Arthur Levine, thanks to his latest The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol (Candlewick). Levine, who co-edited J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, teamed up with illustrator Kevin Hawkes to create a magical story of why Jews give gifts at Hanukkah.

We spoke with Levine to discuss the inspiration for creating the character, Nate Gadol— and how it was inspired by real-life Jewish history.

First things first. Why do Jews give presents at Hanukkah?
In the late nineteenth century, stores realized they could advertise to Jewish immigrant communities. These families, who’d escaped poverty and pogroms in Europe, could suddenly afford to participate in gift-giving alongside their Christian neighbors. It became a symbol of Jewish prosperity in the United States. In fact, the first English word to appear in Yiddish newspapers was “presents.”

In your story, Jewish children get Hanukkah gifts after Nate Galdol helps Santa Claus. What inspired you to create a different origin story?
The real story of why Jews give presents at Hanukkah felt crass. Why not make it magical?

Did you worry Jewish people would find Nate’s story disrespectful?
Hanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday. It’s not even in the Torah. It’s not like I’m writing about an elf on Yom Kippur!

What about Santa Claus?
Some people fixate on Santa Claus in Nate Galdol. They worry it’s an assimilationist story about Jews becoming like Christians — it’s not! Santa is mythical and Nate is a mythical figure. It makes sense that they would know each other.

Nate’s magical powers “make things last as long as they needed to.” Where did this idea come from?
I was inspired by my family, and Jewish values like tzedakah (charitable giving). My maternal grandparents were immigrants. They had to make everything last. My Aunt Jenny was famous for cooking an entire Rosh Hashanna meal—apple cake included!—with a quarter stick of butter. I thought the Hanukkah miracle, in which a small amount of oil lasts as long as is needed, should also play a role in Nate’s powers.

You’ve raised your son Jewish. Did you write this book for him?
Well, I wrote it for myself, and to inspire Jewish children who’ve grown up watching Christmas specials in December. Christmas and Santa Claus are great. We should enjoy them! But we can create our own stories, too.

What do you hope children — and adults! — take away?
Nate is a magical story, but my hero is not a genie. He just gives people a little nudge! He helps people follow their natural impulse to care for each other.

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