It's hard to understand why Christmas came to be a big deal even for people who have never stepped foot inside a church without understanding the context. And the context -- which does predate Christianity by thousands of years -- is that December kicks off winter in the Northern Hemisphere. And for most of human history, winter meant a bunch of us were going to freaking die.
So like this, but with corpses piled up under the tree instead of gifts.
We're so detached from that idea today, when the cold means nothing more than mild annoyance and sometimes slippery roads, that it's hard to grasp how recent this was, and that this was the way of things for virtually all of human history. Every year, you headed into winter with just enough stored food and fuel to get by. The old and the sick knew they might not make it through, and an especially harsh winter could mean that no one would feel the sun's warmth ever again. Every year, you watched all of the plants turn brown and shrivel into husks, followed by an unrelenting darkness and cold that threatened to swallow you and everything you love.
And looking back at that, we see an awesome little portrait of exactly how much humans kick ass. Every year, you see, winter arrived with a short day followed by the longest night of the year (aka the winter solstice), and since before recorded history, humans have been celebrating that day with a feast, or festival, or outright debauchery. On that longest night before the frozen mini-apocalypse, in all times and places, you would find light and song and dancing and food. Cattle would be slaughtered (to avoid having to feed all of them through the winter), families would travel to be together, and wine would flow. Precious supplies were dedicated to making decorations and gifts -- frivolous things, good for nothing other than making people happy.
Sure, some of the kid toys ended up looking like fetish gear, but the spirit and intent were pure.