I've got the same problem every year. Go to the store, can't find the Hanukkah cards. Or when I do find them the selection is so small and pathetic I almost wish I hadn't. There've been years when the selection at the local Osco was so bad I wound up buying Christmas cards instead.
This year I went to the local card shop having decided to buy Hanukkah cards no matter how sappy or ugly just to show the family back east that I was keeping the faith. They know I'm not religious. I haven't been to shul since the last family wedding. But then neither have they.
I had Christmas or Christmas-type cards to buy too. I easily found cards written in Greek for my Greek friends. I found a Chinese card for my Chinese friends. There were lots of Spanish cards of course, and a good variety of Swedish, German, and English ones. I found the Hanukkah cards in the front.
There were five choices, which was enough really. I took a box of 12 over to the counter.
Then I noticed the problem. "Hey, look at this," I said to the guy at the register. "Check this out. They got this wrong. This menorah's only got seven candles."
He picked up the box and examined the card. "Yeah, that's right. Seven candles."
"No, that's wrong. It's supposed to be eight candles."
He looked closer. Counted. Looked at the back. "You sure this is a Hanukkah card?"
I pointed to the back of the box where the greeting was printed: "May peace and happiness fill your heart at Hanukkah and always."
"Well, it looks right," he said. "Do you think it's important?"
"It's not too important to me, but to some, yeah, I think it would be important. I mean, there's one missing. Eight nights, eight candles. What if you had a card that made it 11 days of Christmas? I don't think anybody'd notice if one of Santa's reindeer was missing, but what if you had a card with only two wise men? I mean, it's the Festival of Lights, you know? This is one less, isn't it?"
"But are you sure this is wrong? This is a Hallmark card."
"Sure I'm sure."
He paused, unbelieving. "You're not Jewish though, are you?"
"Yes, I'm Jewish!"
He peered at me. "You don't look Jewish."
"I swear I'm Jewish. I've been celebrating Hanukkah all my life. I've got a menorah at home. It's got space for eight candles." Suddenly I remembered it had space for nine candles. I'd forgotten the shamos, the extra candle that lights the others. I was about to tell the guy, then I thought, why confuse the issue?
He still seemed skeptical.
"Look," I assured him, "I'm still going to buy the cards. I just noticed that it's wrong."
"OK," he said, squinting at a calculator. "I'll give you 20 percent off."
I took the cards, but the question wouldn't go away. Could Hallmark be wrong? What if I was wrong? What if there was a sect that used a menorah with seven branches? Why didn't I go to Hebrew school when I had the chance?
I called a friend who had gone to Hebrew school and asked if she knew anything about seven-branched menorahs. She said that just a couple of hours earlier she'd spoken with a friend who'd asked the same question. Her friend, a greeting-card illustrator, had finished drawing Christmas cards and was just starting on Hanukkah cards, and didn't know whether there were seven branches or nine. She'd looked it up in the dictionary. Webster's said that either was correct. My friend told her that nine was the Hanukkah menorah and seven was the menorah used during the rest of the year. "So maybe that's how it happened," she told me. "It's Webster's fault."
Well, why should he know the difference between a Hanukkah menorah and a regular menorah? I didn't. But maybe I should be bothered by that, I thought. First they shovel so much Christmas at you that you can hardly breathe, then they start cutting days off Hanukkah! Is that a thing to do?
I called Hallmark in Kansas City and pointed out the mistake. A friendly representative offered me a courtesy certificate, but I told him it wasn't necessary. It's not that big a mistake. I hung up feeling good about the whole thing.
I had a couple of packages of Hanukkah gelt that I'd bought for my sons. Maybe I'd just have one. The kids wouldn't mind. I took out a piece and looked at the gold foil covering the creamy chocolate coin inside. On one side was Hebrew writing, which I can't read, and under it "Israel." On the other side was a menorah. With seven branches.