– Wow, you still have your Christmas tree all lit up, – a plumber says appreciatively, while handing me a bill for his visit. The bill is high. Too high for his work on my boiler, which took no more than twenty minutes. I usually argue over his bills. I say things like “It’s unfair to charge me $400 for twenty minutes of work, even if you had to install some new parts!” And so forth. I’m no stranger to arguments which get me nowhere.
But this time everything proceeds peacefully.
“It’s not a Christmas tree,” I correct him. “It’s a New Year’s tree. Since the Soviet Union was an atheist state, they did away with religious symbols, including such things as Christmas trees.”
“The Soviet Union?” he says. “It was atheist?”
“Communism and atheism go together, don’t you know?” I say matter-of-factly, as though this well-fed plumber, who looks more like a millionaire than a plumber, is expected to know anything about Communism and what it goes together with and what it doesn’t.
“No!” he says with feeling. “I didn’t know that it was atheist.”
“The USSR…, ” I begin a sentence, but he interrupts.
“The USSR? The United States of Soviet Russia…?”
“No,” I say, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
“How interesting,” he says.
“So in the USSR, they took away religious symbols and holidays, including Christmas, but because people loved a Christmas tree, they allowed the tree to stay but under a different name. So it became a New Year Tree, and from then on it was associated with the New Year, not Christmas.”
“How interesting!” he says again. “I just love that you still have it on. It lights up the house.”
“Yes, that’s why they burned the Yule log on winter solstice, long before the Christian holiday replaced it. To light up the darkest time of the year. That’s the origin of Christmas, you know.”
“So Christmas is not about baby Jesus?” he says. “It’s this other thing?”
“I’m just talking about origins of holidays of light in the darkest time of the year,” I say, signing and handing him a check, my unfairly high payment for his visit.
“Wonderful!” he says, putting away my check. “I love it that you still have your tree in February!”
I begin to to realize how he tricked me by diverting my attention from his bill to the tree. I got so side-tracked by telling him the story behind the New Year tree that I forgot to argue about the unfair cost and just wrote the check for the amount on his bill. He won, I lost. What does atheism in Communist countries have to do with it?

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