The order of the lighting the Hanukkah candles was not raised until the thirteenth century. In this era the customs of R. Meir of Rothenburg (c.1215-1293) and R. Jonah Gerondi (c.1200-1263) were recorded by their disciples.
From two responsa of the fourteenth century we know about two other customs; the Austrian custom and the custom of Maharik corresponding in all likelihood, to the old French custom. Separate traditions evolved from amongst the three main strands of Ashkenazi Jewry, the Rhineland, the French and the Austrian (and East European). Apparently the Spanish tradition was similar to that of the Rhineland.
It is well known that the French tradition which was most influential during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries under the leadership of the French Tossafists lost its influence under the persecutions and the expulsions of the Jews of England in 1290, of the Jews of France in 1306 and the final expulsion of the Jews of Provence in 1498. The departure of R. Joseph Colon to Italy is connected to the worsening conditions of the Jews of Savoy during the fifteenth century. The French tradition remained alive in the small communities of Northern Italy (Piedmont and Lombardy) and it disappeared slowly, first by assimilation to the mainstream and then with the disappearance of the small communities in the nineteenth century following industrialization and the rural exodus.
R. Joseph Caro made extensive use of the responsa of Maharik in his Beit Yoseph, and in this case of the order of lighting of the Hanukkah candles he accepted his ruling. The success and the increasing influence of Shulhan Arukh, made it possible for this ruling to gain popularity and enabled this custom to spread quickly. It was adopted immediately into the Sephardic world, and more slowly but steadily into the Ashkenazi world.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries new lighting schemes were developed in order to satisfy contradictory halachic requirements. Today the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh is practically universally accepted with only very few, small communities behaving differently, e.g. Perushim of Jerusalem who still follow the Rhineland custom of the Gra. This evolution of customs may seem surprising to a society which is not at all accustomed to changes and evolution. In our everyday life, we have the impression that Jewish traditions are immutable.
J. Jean Ajdler, “The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles: The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the Publication of the Shulhan Arukh”, Hakirah 7 (Winter 2009), 224-225.