The Chanukah story, in the Book of Maccabees I, opens with Mattathias killing a fellow-Jew who agrees to participate in pagan worship, thus declaring a revolt against the Seleucid government and its religious decrees. Much as we would like this holiday to be about pluralism, it is, in its origins, about fanaticism. For this reason, and others, it morphed over the years; for the rabbis, it commemorated the miracle of the oil; for Zionists, it became a festival of nationalism; for some Jews today, it seems, the focus is not on olive oil, but on saving the world from the consequences of limitless burning of non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels.
A few hundred years after Mattathias zealous act, Rabban Gamaliel was bathing in the bath of Aphrodite in Akko. A pagan challenged him, wondering what the head of the Sanhedrin was doing bathing opposite a statue of a Greek goddess. The Rabbi answered: I didnt come into her space, she came into mine: one doesnt say, lets build a bath house in honor of Aphrodite, but rather, lets make an Aphrodite to decorate our bath house. The prohibition refers to their gods: those that are treated as gods are forbidden; those not treated as gods are permitted. -Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3:4
Even though the Torah is pretty clear about the prohibition of images, the oral tradition preserves many important voices that moderate this prohibition in one way or another. Our classical literature is full of different views on the limits of our interaction with the cultures around us.
A dream of modern Zionism (and a myth, I suspect, still held by many Jews around the world) was that the Jewish state would be as Jewish as European or American cultures were Christian, with Jewish symbols dominating the public space and Jewish holiday songs playing on the sound systems in the elevators. And indeed, so it has come to pass: Israel is Jewish the way America and Europe are Christian. However, it turns out that Europe and America, for all their Christian majority dominance, are today more variegated and pluralistic than a few generations ago. There are Chanukah menorahs in public spaces in the United States, and the Moslem presence is very much felt in Europe. Therefore, for us to be Jewish like they are Christian means that in Israel, too, the reality is a lot more complicated than the myth.
There was always, of course, a Christian presence here, primarily in Christian Arab communities. It was always weird to drive through an Arab village, with its distinctively middle-eastern feel, and encounter illuminated Santa Clauses riding their sleighs over snowless roofs. But over the past two decades, with the large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union including both some practicing Christians and some Jews for whom Christmas in the old country was a cultural, seasonal celebration one often sees Christmas decorations in the windows in urban Jewish neighborhoods as well. And the thousands of foreign workers from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia add to this phenomenon.
It is two months and ten days between the two main Moslem festivals, Id El Fitr and Id El Adha. As the Moslem lunar calendar shifts past the solar calendar eleven days a year, every 32 years we go through a sequence of about 8 years when one of those holidays falls within a few weeks of Chanukah and/or Christmas. Therefore, there is the feeling of one long holiday season which includes everybody and there are various Festival of Festivals programs here and there around the country.
And then there is Sylvester, what Israelis call New Years Day, under the influence of the European tradition of St. Sylvesters day. For secular Israelis, its a popular, secular, western holiday; for the religious, its a forbidden Christian observance.
This season really highlights that gap between the rich cultural reality here and the myth of a place that would be just Jewish. I dont think Mattathias would approve. But I imagine Rabban Gamaliel would feel just fine.