Why Do We Give Presents On Hanukkah? 'Nate Gadol' Has The Story

Dec 12, 2020

Hanukkah is not some kind of Jewish Christmas. The holiday, which began this week, commemorates the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem, where Jews, reclaiming the temple after a revolt, found a one-day supply of oil to light its menorah — and it lasted for eight nights. Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, which in North America seems to fold it smack into the lights of the Christmas season.

Candlewick Books

Arthur Levine and Kevin Hawkes have written and illustrated a new book for children that may help explain how Hanukkah and Christmas have come to be helpful neighbors — it's called The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol. Nate Gadol's actual magic is the ability to make things stretch, and Levine says that's inspired by the story of the Hanukkah miracle. "But I really wanted to create a kind of pour-quoi story about why Jews started to give presents on Hanukkah. And the truth is that it did happen at a very specific time, the late 1880s, because Jewish merchants saw an opportunity. There were, you know, more middle class Jews around and they thought, hey, let's sell them on the idea of presents. But that's not a particularly magical story, is it?"


Interview Highlights

On Nate Gadol's meeting with that OTHER holiday gift-giver

So the other part of the inspiration was that when I was a kid, I remember feeling really erased by Christmas. Every time I turned on the TV, there was another Christmas special with all of these wonderful stories and characters and, you know, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman and of course, Santa Claus. Christians have this incredibly rich mythology that has almost nothing to do with the story of Jesus, but has become associated with the wonderful celebration of Christmas. So I really wanted to add, you know, a mythological hero that Jews could call their own, hence Nate Gadol.

Nate Gadol's very appropriate magic: Making things stretch.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher / Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

On hoping the book reaches more than just Jewish families

Oh, of course. And I also think that Jewish families take many shapes. Our son has been raised Jewish, but one of his parents is fully Jewish, that's me, and the other parent is Catholic. Still, he does Christmas. You know, that's a thing that brings his family together and they have all these joyful traditions. And that's an important reason why I think it's not constructive to say no, keep your mythology away from our mythology. Don't ever have them in the same universe. Well, why not? We all have imaginations. And you're not constructing your religion out of the stories that you tell on a holiday.

Levine says that Nate Gadol provides "the spirit to carry out that impulse to human kindness."
Reproduced by permission of the publisher / Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

On Nate Gadol's message about helping each other out

I think that this is absolutely a story of generosity and empathy, even as it quote explains presents. It really does so in the context of these two families, the Glasers and the O'Malleys, going through difficult times and really wanting to help each other. And what Nate Gadol provides is really the spirit to carry out that impulse to human kindness.

This story was produced for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Samantha Balaban, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hanukkah is not some kind of Jewish Christmas. The holiday, which began this week, commemorates the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem, where Jews, reclaiming the temple after a revolt, found a one-day supply of oil to light its menorah, and it lasted for eight nights. Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, which in North America seems to fold it smack into the lights of the Christmas season. Arthur Levine and Kevin Hawkes have written and illustrated a new book for children that may help explain how Hanukkah and Christmas have come to be helpful neighbors, "The Hanukkah Magic Of Nate Gadol."

Arthur Levine, the acclaimed editor and author of children's books, joins us from somewhere in New Jersey. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARTHUR LEVINE: (Laughter) Thank you, Scott. It's nice to be here.

SIMON: We ask you about the character at the center of this story, Nate Gadol. And his gift is to make things stretch, isn't it?

LEVINE: Yes. And the inspiration for that comes from the story of the Hanukkah miracle. But I really wanted to create a kind of pourquoi story about why Jews started to give presents on Hanukkah. And the truth is that it did happen at a very specific time, the late 1880s, because Jewish merchants saw an opportunity. There were, you know, more middle-class Jews around, and they thought, hey, let's sell them on the idea of presents. But that's not a particularly magical story, is it?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well - and not to give anything away, you have an encounter between Nate Gadol and the biggest - what I'll just call the biggest present provider of them all.

LEVINE: (Laughter) So the other part of the inspiration was that when I was a kid, I remember feeling really erased by Christmas. Every time I turned on the TV, there was another Christmas special with all of these wonderful stories and characters and, you know, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman and, of course, Santa Claus. Christians have this incredibly - like, this incredibly rich mythology that has almost nothing to do with the story of Jesus but has become associated with the wonderful celebration of Christmas. So I really wanted to add, you know, a mythological hero that Jews could call their own, hence Nate Gadol.

SIMON: You've got to be hoping it's not just Jewish families that read this.

LEVINE: Oh, of course. And I also think that Jewish families take many shapes. Our son has been raised Jewish, but one of his parents is fully Jewish - that's me - and the other parent is Catholic. Still, he does Christmas (laughter). You know, that's the thing that brings his family together. And they have all these joyful traditions, and that's an important reason why I think it's not constructive to say no, keep your mythology away from our mythology. Don't ever have them in the same universe. Well, why not? We all have imaginations. And you're not constructing your religion out of the stories that you tell on a holiday.

SIMON: I wonder, is there a theme or message in "The Hanukkah Magic Of Nate Gadol" that we can help each other out when it comes to bringing a little light into the lives of children?

LEVINE: I think that this is absolutely a story of generosity and empathy, even as it, quote, "explains presents." It really does so in the context of these two families, the Glasers and the O'Malleys going through difficult times and really wanting to help each other. And what Nate Gadol provides is really the spirit to carry out that impulse to human kindness.

SIMON: Arthur Levine, who has written "The Hanukkah Magic Of Nate Gadol," Hanukkah tov to you. Thank you.

LEVINE: Thank you. (Speaking Hebrew).

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