’Tis the season to be merry! It’s the time of year to wish friends and family, far and wide, a wonderful season’s greeting. It’s a festive occasion where every walk down the office hall or across the local mall is bound to receive a cry of “Happy Holidays!” or “Merry Christmas!” You might also hear a “Happy Kwanzaa!” or two and, of course, the ever-popular “Happy Hanukkah!”
Or was that Chanukkah?
It’s not uncommon to see this popular holiday name written with either an H or a Ch. Sometimes it’s written with one n and two k’s, and other times it has just one n and one k. In fact, when all phonetic variations are taken into account, there are up to sixteen possible spellings of this word!
So if you’ve been getting tripped up on how to spell the name of this end-of-year Jewish holiday, don’t worry: you’re not alone. This post will help you clear things up.
First, let’s take a moment to understand where Hanukkah comes into the picture when you’re writing those holiday salutations.
Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and eight nights, begins each year on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which occurs somewhere between November 28 and December 26. A customary ritual of Hanukkah is to light one candle each night on a Hanukkah menorah, officially called a hanukkiah or chanukiyah, which is why you also hear it referred to as the “Festival of Lights.”
Traditionally, Hanukkah had less significance in the Jewish faith when compared to other Jewish holidays; however, the proximity on the calendar to Christmas has led many Jewish families to turn the holiday into a fun and festive annual celebration. Families may gather to enjoy some honey-dipped latkes, spin the dreidel, or exchange chocolate gelt with children, traditions that bear a resemblance to customs Christians follow when celebrating Christmas. Conversely, many Jewish families have adopted the tradition of exchanging gifts in similar fashion to those who celebrate Christmas and other end-of-year holidays. And while the two holidays may have very different backgrounds and meanings, “Happy Hanukkah!” is shouted out with the same jubilation as “Merry Christmas!”
The short answer is…both!
The two most common spellings of the holiday are Hanukkah and Chanukah, and each has millions of search results on Google. You’ve no doubt run into situations where you have seen the two different spellings in use. They’re written differently on holiday greeting cards, on decorations in shopping malls, or on television shows. To make things more confusing, as Hanukkah has solidified itself as a definitive seasonal holiday and gained more mainstream acceptance over the years, with songs on Saturday Night Live! and a musical number on A Christmas Story Live!, the spelling of its name has evolved as well.
The reason for this has to do with a grammar term known as transliteration, and the answer to which version is “correct” essentially comes down to mass appeal and which spelling garners the most widespread use.
When learning how to communicate with someone in a different language, words are translated to give each person a shared understanding of their meaning. This process can occur for any language and is generally more effective when translating languages that use similar alphabets. When two languages use a similar alphabet, it is easier to find a consistent translation for each word and select the proper letter for each sound. This is why it is often easier for a native English speaker to learn Spanish or Italian than it is to learn Chinese or Hebrew.
Hebrew uses a series of lines and symbols that don’t match English letters. How do you translate the Hebrew word for the holiday חנוכה?
This is where transliteration comes in.
Transliteration places an emphasis on the pronunciation rather than the meaning. In the case of חנוכה, the way the word is spoken is how it becomes written. The pronunciation at the beginning of this word closely resembles an H or a Ch in English grammar, so spelling it Hanukkah or Chanukah becomes the accepted spelling in the English language.
Since 2011, the most common spelling you’ll find is Hanukkah—initial H, no c, and two k’s. Throughout this post, we’ve mostly written it as Hanukkah.
What happened before 2011? Time magazine analyzed historical Internet searches and discovered that pre-2011, the top choice online was Chanukah. Nowadays it is Hanukkah. This would suggest that if you’re trendy and prefer contemporary uses of language, drop the Ch; if you like to “slightly buck the trend and go old school, Chanukah is your spelling” (Newcomb 2011).
Ultimately, this only proves the impact of transliteration and shows how words and spellings can also change over time!
People may continue the argument of Hanukkah vs. Chanukah, but if you’re a hard-nosed grammarian, you may want to back up your choice with how words are used an official government documents. In America, this means following the spelling used by the US Library of Congress: Hanukkah.
However, understanding multiculturalism means opening yourself up to accepting the traditions and practices of those with different cultural backgrounds and religious preferences. When it comes to language, this also includes accepting the common spellings and uses of certain words in those cultures.
Thus, if you know that your friends and colleagues prefer to write Hanukkah as Chanukah, feel free to write it that way without feeling as if you’ve misspelled anything. Or if they use the more widely used modern spelling of Hanukkah, go with it! The simple act of kindness and warm wishes will make them smile, and your blessing will be appreciated.
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