Celebrating the incarnation of Jesus is so meaningful that I think it would be a mistake to stop commemorating it. Whether you have Christmas lights or trees is really irrelevant, as long as we center our celebration on God’s gift of His Son.
As for the tree and other practices coming from paganism, this is likely true. At the winter solstice, the Romans celebrated a festival called Saturnalia, in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturnus, by decorating their houses with greens and lights and exchanging gifts. Christians took these practices and gave them a Christian perspective. Although some wonder if this celebration is legitimate, we have a great New Testament lesson to help guide us. In the first century, some believers equated purchasing meat sacrificed to idols from the meat market with engaging in pagan worship. Paul rejected this line of thinking. He wrote, “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols. . . . food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:4, 8). Eating food offered to an idol is neither right nor wrong; in these neutral areas, we should follow our consciences. It is the same with Christmas paraphernalia, like trees and greens and lights. If you are not engaged in pagan worship and your conscience is free, then enjoy these aspects of the holiday.
That being said, we need to consciously choose to emphasize the incarnation over the commercialization. My wife and I didn’t want to eliminate gift giving altogether because we thought it reminded us of God’s great gift of the Messiah Jesus for us—“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15)—and the gifts the magi brought to the Lord Jesus. But we did choose moderation. We never overwhelmed family members with great quantities or lavishly expensive gifts. And we taught our kids to give to others, especially those more needy than we were.
Another way to keep our focus on Jesus is by including Him in the celebration. As our kids were growing up, we made sure to attend our congregation’s worship service as part of our Christmas holiday. On Christmas morning, we read all the biblical narratives related to the Messiah’s birth. And although we exchanged gifts, we emphasized that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17), so He is the one for whom we are most thankful.
We also turned Christmas into a celebratory birthday party, with a Happy Birthday banner across our fireplace mantel. My wife made a birthday cake for the Lord, and Christmas was the only morning of the year that our kids were permitted to eat cake for breakfast. December 25 may not actually be Jesus’ birthday, but it is as good as any day to celebrate the incarnation of the King.