A COLLEAGUE told me how much her son enjoyed Hanukkah recently. The little boy was enthralled with the story of the temple lamp that burned miraculously for eight days and anticipated lighting candles at home.
One reason his proud mom related the story to me: The boy and his family aren't Jewish.
He learned of the holiday story in pre-school and was taken with it. He did not know about, or at least did not expect, the customary giving of gifts for the Jewish "Festival of Lights."
His simple celebration seemed a beacon in a season fogged by too many items to check off a list.
I am no Scrooge. I'm not anti-Christmas or Hanukkah; we have symbols of both in my home, as I'm Jewish and my wife is Catholic. Nor am I anti-shopping, as my credit-card statement attests.
But I'm also not the first person to wonder whether the gift exchange, the accompanying frenzy and heightened expectations impede the holiday spirit.
As a parent of three young children, it has often occurred to me that many secular holidays -- Halloween, Thanksgiving and July Fourth come to mind -- and others on the religious calendar create family moments more easily and more genuinely than Christmas and Hanukkah.
The elusive Elmo
I should, at least, be grateful that none of my kids asked for "Tickle Me Elmo." With due respect to Columbus, finding the New World could not have been as hard as finding this giggling Sesame Street doll. Fist fights have reportedly broken out between grown-ups in store aisles over this prize. There are also reported shortages of "Happy Holidays Barbie," though the manufacturer promises ample "redemption certificates" before Christmas. Ah, a child unwrapping her Barbie voucher -- a Kodak moment.
I am hardly "anti-toy." In fact, I was puzzled at the bitter responses to a piece I wrote years ago about waiting in the pre-dawn for a shipment of "Power Rangers." Some said I was a spineless dupe to commercial manipulation and my child's wishes.
Bah to that! Toys have been a valuable creative outlet since prehistoric tykes carved slingshots and did "Etch-a-Sketch" on cave walls. A child occasionally cherishes a doll or miniature figure so much it practically assumes family-member status, like a scene out of Disney's "Toy Story."
Nor should one underestimate the magical emotion of anticipating a certain toy: I can't recall specifically much of what I received for the holidays as a boy, but my whole life I'll remember the color of the sky as it turned inky blue outside the milky window of my Hebrew school, signaling nightfall and the start of Hanukkah.
Still, part of me wonders whether the modern toy industry's carpet-bombing on TV, its deft marketing and mammoth stores and "happy meal" prizes create a craving akin to substance-addiction for the pre-teen set. The Toy Manufacturers America estimates that $350 is spent per child per year on toys, up 7 percent from last year.
I realize many merchants, not to mention the ad-sales force of my employer, might respond to my trepidation with three words: Are you nuts? Holiday shopping accounts for half a business' profits for the year.
How about an alternative? A holiday to exchange gifts -- call it Commerce Day -- maybe in the dead of winter when folks in cold-weather states need a pick-me-up. Save Christmas and Hanukkah for gathering with family and friends, making merry, decorating homes and celebrating miracles.
I thought I began to make headway when my daughter, 6, wondered aloud about the significance of Christmas trees. Before I could answer, however, she provided her own: "So we know where to find our gifts, of course."
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/14/96