Christmas is generally celebrated as the Birth of Christ, but from what I gather, most people don't believe that it is actual calendar day of His birth. In fact, most scholars and experts that I've read believe His birth to be in early spring, with the new lambs, which is rich with symbolism I assume I don't need to review.
Anyway, from the knowledge I have accumulated over the years, it seems that most of the traditions we have surrounding the holiday itself are adapted from pagan rites and rituals of ancient times, right down to the date, so near to the winter solstice.
This was a potent source of strife in my family as I was growing up. I've stated before that the Christmas season was always a time of much yelling and arguing around my house.
So, now that I have kids of my own, I wanted to know what course I should follow, which way I should turn. And after a lot of prayer and some light reading and some time spent in classes at church. I think I have an answer.
Would you like to hear it?
I knew you would.
Anyway, it's not such a deep thought, but for all the pagan origins of Christmas symbols, the meanings have long been supplanted by the newer, Christian meanings. A goodly number of things were adopted by early Christians in order to allow them to practice the new faith in times and places where persecution were rampant. Of the original twelve Apostles (substituting Matthias in for Judas), the only one not martyred was John of Patmos, who died a natural death (OR DID HE? =:0)
We've all heard the stories of Christians being thrown to the lions.
So it's only natural the would try to find a way to spread the Word surreptitiously. It's hard work starting a new religion: the old religions aren't going to give up their places quietly.
Anyway, with all of these new meanings given to old symbols, the old significance has faded and sometimes been lost to history. The Christian interpretation has overcome the pagan and made it Christianity's own.
Sort of like the Islamic custom of burning down churches in conquered cities and building mosques on the rubble, except without all the burning and bloodshed.
So, basically, these symbols have become imbued with meaning to Christians, and if they remind us of Him, and spur us to remember Him and do good things in His name, there is really no problem with enjoying a Christmas tree.
"For every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God."
So when you see these symbols, let them be an invitation to you to do something good for someone else. Maybe take the time to say a small prayer of promise that you will work to make life better for others over the coming year.
It doesn't have to be big:say you have a neighbor with a mess of kids, a ton of work on her schedule...and a driveway full of snow. You don't have to buy her a snow blower: just a few minutes to help her clear the snow will undoubtedly be appreciated.
If you have toys that your kids have outgrown (that are still in decent shape, obviously), find a young family and offer those toys to them. Even if they can't use them, the offer will surely be appreciated.
Babysit for a friend. Mow someone's lawn. A kind word to a stranger. Reconnect with someone you've not spoken to for a long time.
It doesn't have to be earthshattering. Just some small interactions that let others know we appreciate them, and let's Christ know we appreciate Him.
Festivity and gaiety, the elements in the Roman "Saturnalia," are still features of Christmas; but the dominating spirit of pagan license has been supplanted by the noble impulse and desire to give joy and blessing. The mistletoe bough still hangs in our houses, but the heathen superstitions of sacrificing animals and men to propitiate angry gods has been supplanted by the realization of the significance of Christ's great sacrifice. The yule-log fire that formerly burned out old wrongs and consumed bitter feuds, now glows in the grates of loving homes, where hearts beat in thanksgiving and praise for the sacredness of home ties that bind the family circle. Glittering ornaments and brilliant decorations are still hung upon the Christmas tree, but no images of Bacchus hang thereon, and jolly hymns in which
"They praised the god of wine,
Whose earthen image adorned the pine,"
are replaced by the heavenly anthem, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14.) Good old St. Nicholas has long since gone the way of all mortals, but the joy he experienced in doing kindly deeds is now shared by millions who are learning that true happiness comes only by making others happy—the practical application of the Savior's doctrine of losing one's life to gain it. In short, the Christmas spirit is the Christ spirit, that makes our hearts glow in brotherly love and friendship and prompts us to kind deeds of service. It is the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, obedience to which will bring "peace on earth," because it means—good will toward all men.—David O. McKay
In the end, I hope that when we see the symbols of Christmas, we think less of their origins and more of what they have come to represent, the Spirit of Christ, and that we can keep that Spirit in our hearts all year long.