Remember when it was spelled Chanukah? I do!

When you reach “a certain age,” as I have, younger folk start asking such questions as: What was Hanukkah like when you were growing up?
First answer: We always spelled it Chanukah! Then, truth told, it wasn’t so “much-of-a-much,” as an elderly relative used to say. Low-key. So low it might have vanished, had it not been for the menorah, the candles and the visits by my Boubby the Philosopher, who would arrive at our house with a dreidel and her very worn leather change purse filled with pennies: one for each of those candles, no more and no less than the 44 needed for eight days of lighting. Then we’d sit down in the middle of the living room floor and spin that dreidel, winning and losing those pennies.
Our menorah was tin. Such menorahs (nobody knew the word “hanukkiyah” then!) could be bought for a dime. Several years ago, I bought one — clearly a replica, but actually tin — to show various groups of non-Jews and our own children what the “olden days” were like. I paid $3 for it …
Then, the candles were orange, packed in a dull gray box bearing the name and address of its origin in Brooklyn. I learned an important generational lesson when I found a box of those ancient candles on a holiday bazaar table and excitedly showed them to my daughter, a teenager at the time.
“They’re ugly,” she exclaimed. I was crushed. “How can you say that?” was my response. “These are the candles I grew up with! These are the real Chanukah candles!” She picked up a box of the then-ubiquitous Israeli multicolored ones from the same table and shook it in my face, saying “These are the candles I grew up with! So these are the real Chanukah candles!” Thus do perceptions and customs change with the times …
For our parents’ silver wedding anniversary, my sister and I bought them a “real” menorah, made of silvery chrome. When my daughter married, the only gifts she wanted from her grandparents and parents were our menorahs. Of course, we gave them gladly. How could we not? My mother reverted to her old tin model; I decided to buy a new one the next time I visited family in Pittsburgh, home of a wonderful Judaica shop. But when there, and I mentioned my need to an uncle while we were talking over coffee, he said “Wait a minute! I have one in the basement!” And down he went, coming up with something that was hiding its identity under a full coat of deep black. Then he filled the kitchen sink with muriatic acid and soaked the dark object; it soon emerged as a beautiful bronzed menorah in the old style, with a lion standing tall at its center to support the shammash. He told me, this longtime plumber, that he’d recently found it in the basement of an old vacant house undergoing demolition, and had received permission to take it home, where it wasn’t needed: His family had a much larger, very regal one to shine throughout the holiday.
To this day, that relic is my very favorite menorah. Over many years, I’ve collected many others; you can see some of them on current display at the Dallas JCC — along with this one that “cleaned up nice,” as another long-gone family member used to say.
But I think the main difference between now and then is our holiday’s public nature. This small, private celebration entered the American mainstream as we Jews emerged from a sort of hiding, and the calendar convergence of our festival with Christmas began what’s become the overdone gift-giving “ritual.” Yet for me, the real change is reflected in language: Non-Jews often have trouble with the guttural “ch” sound, so we gave in, gave up, and stopped saying Chanukah ourselves in favor of the easier-to-pronounce Hanukkah.
Whatever! May it be happy for all of us!

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