I love learning about the history of how different traditions have shifted and changed in meaning over the centuries. D and I are not really religious, but the consumerist, buy-everything super-extravaganza at the end of December is not really our thing, either. So, I also love to think of ways to incorporate different historical or mulitcultural traditions into modern holiday celebrations in some kind of meaningful way.
Many of the holiday traditions we associate with Christmas (both secular and religious) actually have their roots in ancient winter rituals. Decorating evergreen trees, lighting candles, Santa Claus, and even the timing of the holiday at the end of December can all be traced to various early European and Middle Eastern celebrations of the winter solstice. When people in the Roman empire began to convert to Christianity, they hung on to their pagan celebrations and incorporated them into the Christian ones. Interestingly enough, Christmas traditions were so closely associated with pre-Chrisitan rituals that, during the 1600s, Puritans in the US and Britain actually banned public celebrations of Christmas at all, thinking it was just too similar to pagan celebrations of the solstice.
The Yule Log is one tradition that began long before Christmas celebrations as we know them came to be. Norse and Germanic rituals involved burning large logs during the winter feasts. The feast lasted as long as the log did, sometimes as long as 12 days! In Celtic mythology, winter signaled the end of the reign of the Oak King and the rise of the Holly King; the burning of an oak log around the solstice thus symbolized the death (and eventual rebirth) of the Oak King.