If you squint your eyes, you can tell where the gaps are. Standing next to my dad, I squint, the lights blur and spread, except for the branches on the lower right. We've already wound the lights around the tree, in and out fo the branches. My dad goes to the tree, adjusts the lights, and stands back again. Afterwards we will open the two or three large boxes of ornaments; the bulbs with Peanuts characters dancing around the perimeter that we would by each year until they stopped making them in 2000, wooden bears and red and green cars and candycanes, and our homemade traesures pieced together in the first grade out of string and glitter and pictures we brought from home. A few weeks before Christmas we would travel ten our fifteen miles out of town, down the potholed country rodes following the signs painted with an evergreen, to the Christmas tree farm. In Texas it's often almost seventy degrees in December, and it felt odd to be cutting down our christmas tree in short sleeves. But in the cool evenings, we'd drink eggnog or hot apple cider as we attempted to pack all of our hundreds of bought and handmade ornaments onto the tree branches. I've seen perhaps prettier trees, with ribbons and well placed gold globes, but our tree always looked good in our house, cluttered and perfect.
Now that I have a full time job, I don't come home until much closer to Christmas Eve, too late to buy and decorate a tree. I miss the smell of evergreen and sitting in the living room with the tree before anyone else was awake, squinting at the lights. Last week I convinced my roommates to come with my to the grocery store to pick out a small inexpensive tree to put in the corner of our apartment. We drove out to Krogers, but the thought of strapping a tree to the top of my Neon, and the lack of enthusiasm from my roommates gave me second thoughts. Instead, we returned with a one foot tall tree in a pot, with a faint evergreen smell that can only be detected by shoving your nose into the top branches.
At home, my parents have bought a fake tree. It's smaller than the tree we would have picked up at the tree farm, the branches less full, the small white lights already wound around every branch. This is just one of the changes now that my parents have moved to Missouri and I am no longer in college. Others include having considerably less than a month off for Christmas, flying on a holiday weekend, and colder weather. I mind them less than I thought I would. We still hand out each gift separately, staring at the recipient as he or she opens it, then waiting for them to get up, walk across the room, and hug the giver of the gift. My mom still documents every moment and every gift and every hug with her digital camera. We still go to church on Christmas eve, at 11:00, the church hung with greens and candles at each pew. My dad gives a sermon about how much God loves us, and I still believe it when he says it. It's really not that much different here in Joplin. And the area around Joplin is an interesting place, in a way. After Christmas, we went to see "The Way to Salvation" light display at the Vietnamese Catholic Seminary, which boasted not only a good sampling of bible stories, but a fishing dinosaur, bambi, and a four armed swimming bear. On the way back, we passed the "Precious Moments" chapel, but were, unfortunately, unable to stop. Maybe next year.