They are rhetorically charged individuals and objects, who/which transfer symbolic meanings to the masses. They also tell a great deal about the cultures from which they originate. .
Christmas is an excellent example. On this alleged "birth-date- of Jesus Christ, three kings brought gifts to Bethlehem for the son of their god. This made the holiday a spiritually gift-giving gathering for all Christians. Though this tradition developed from a much older pagan practice, Christian culture molded it to cater to the needs and expectations of its people. Therefore, Christmas practices, icons and artifacts tell us a lot about the society to which they belong.
Today, Christmas is celebrated when Santa Claus (a fictional character originating from St. Nicholas) leaves beautifully wrapped gifts under "Christmas (evergreen) trees- for behaved children (victims to religious conformity and control). The Christmas tree is visibly an artifact, just as St. Nick is obviously the central icon for this holiday. He is generally depicted as a jolly, old huggable man with rosy cheeks, a tubby belly and a big white beard. This is our society's idea of the loving grandfather figure "and some impressionable/helpless children believe in it well into the sixth grade!.
This tradition, of parents lying to and bribing their children to keep them happy and sane through another boring religious holiday, tells me a whole lot about our society. It strongly resembles the way our government feeds us lies (via the media) and bribes us (with our very capitalist makeup, along with their prescription meds) to keep us sane and numb to the hopeless irony of our world. Yet, a few children, here and there, have the brainpower to question Santa Claus's validity. If you end up parenting one of these, be careful, because our society (as well as almost any other) doesn't appreciate rebels of conformity.
Back on the subject of icons and artifacts: My other selection of an icon is ultimately the most widely accepted "God himself.