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The Jesse Tree, Part 2: Finding the Essential for the Family

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Dec 20, 2016

I’m concluding my Jesse Tree discussion, just as Advent closes. In Part One I discussed presenting the Old Testament to children, using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as a guideline. The aspects I want to carry forward in my home are presenting the Old Testament in a deliberate manner, choosing the essential and what is appropriate for the child while keeping it in context with the Advent Liturgy.

As I mentioned last week, the Jesse Tree is based on the prophecy of Isaiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1). Older illustrations and stained glass windows illustrate the genealogy of Jesus through Jesse, illustrating it as a “Tree of Jesse” or “Flower of Jesse.” The tradition of the Christmas tree traces its origins back to the medieval mystery plays, particularly the ones that illustrated the story of Original Sin. One of the main props was a pyramid or evergreen tree decorated with apples and white wafers symbolizing manna and the Eucharist. The plays would make the story of redemption come alive, including these aspects of the Jesse Tree. The current Jesse Tree tradition originates from the medieval plays and also the artwork of the Jesse Tree, using different symbols or persons of the family tree of Jesus, usually made into ornaments that could be hung each day in Advent.

Applying the “Jesse Tree” in the home during Advent was inspired by the Liturgical Movement, particularly in the 50s and 60s. The idea was to help the domestic church go more deeply in seeing the salvation history and connections in the Liturgy. Interestingly, there are multiple interpretations and not a one-size fits all—even the name has evolved. Earlier versions I have found were called “Advent Tree” or “The Christmas Tree.”

The usual practice of a Jesse Tree in the home is to choose certain Old Testament events, persons or symbols, create a tree with paper, branches, an artificial tree, etc., and make symbolic ornaments for each. Each day there would be a new ornament to hang on the “tree”, a reading from either a booklet or the Bible, and depending on the family, this could be part of a larger prayer service.

I’ve seen with many families there can be several obstacles to fully celebrating the Jesse Tree in the home:

  1. Relating to Young Children: Younger children have difficulty with relating to figures and the length of tradition.
  2. Overcoming Choice Paralysis: There are so many different options to use for the Jesse Tree, the choices can be overwhelming.
  3. Losing Track and Falling Behind: Getting behind with the busyness of Advent.
  4. Making the Perfect Ornament: Perfectionism or craft-impairment could limit participation.
  5. Following the Child: Allow the Jesse Tree to be more child-led than adult-run.

I don’t have the perfect nor a one-size-fits-all solution, but I do have a few ideas on how to implement the Jesse Tree in the home while getting over these hurdles.

1. Relating to Young Children:

A Wreath, not a Tree (young children)

When my children were very young, I realized that having an Old Testament figure each day was too much. Following the Advent liturgy, the readings feature the Prophet Isaiah, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary. I wanted to make sure these principal Advent figures were emphasized and made a singular impression. It was this passage from Mother Mary Francis sharing the Poor Clare tradition of naming of the Advent candles in the wreath that helped me decide how to do this:

In Advent, we gather each Sunday evening in the community room under the big green wreath that swings above our heads on long purple ribbons. There are four tall candles set in the wreath, and each week Mother Abbess lights one more, first sprinkling the wreath and us with holy water and then reciting the day’s collect, full of the Church’s immense yearning for the coming of the little Redeemer. “Come! Come! Come!” And we stand under the wreath where the Isaias-candle burns, and the St. John Baptist-candle, and the St. Joseph-candle joined at last by the Mary-candle; and we sing: “Veni, veni, Emmanuel.” The monastery is on tiptoe with expectation, and the colored ropes and bells and stars that happy-faced nuns will soon be draping and pinning all over the monastery take their meaning from these prayers and these Office chants (A Right to be Merry, p. 90).

I decided my first “Jesse Tree” to bring in the Old and New Testament into our Advent prayers was through the Advent wreath. We keep ours at our dinner table and light it at the evening meal. Like the Poor Clares, we named our candles for each week, and I made a poster and had the prayers reflect a quote for each of the weeks. I have remade our poster over the years, and this is still my children’s favorite. A friend of mine took this idea a little further and had a specially painted peg doll for each week that would be added in the middle of the wreath.

Infancy Narratives (Younger Children)

On Wednesdays I assist in a Level I atrium. The children are ages 3 to 6. The last few weeks of Advent I have been reading the Scripture booklets for the Infancy narratives multiple times: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity with Shepherds. The children never tire of hearing it, and as I was reading aloud I myself kept finding new areas of meditation. Because it is God’s living Word, it never grows stagnant or boring.

If I were to choose key family figures for a young child, I think I would focus more on the Infancy narratives. This is part of the family story of Jesus, which is the focus of the Jesse Tree. Using a poster, tree, or creche, the figures for the creche or Nativity scene could be the “Jesse Tree” figures. Use the stable and scenes for the Annunciation and Visitation and Nativity. The figures would stay in a box, and every day a new figure could be added, accompanied by the reading of a scripture passage. Children love repetition, so the rereading of the Infancy narratives can be the background of Advent. The children also love moving the pieces along to the Scripture passage. Examples of figures:

Nativity Scene Tree
1. Angel Gabriel 9. Donkey
2. Zechariah 10. Cow
3. Elizabeth 11. Manger
4. Star 12. Straw
5. Shepherds 13. Mary
6. Angels 14. Joseph
7. “Gloria in Excelsis in Deo” 15. Swaddling Clothes
8. Sheep 16. Baby Jesus

Other options could be the city of Bethlehem, St. Anne and Joachim, Isaiah the Prophet, and John the Baptist...but it’s harder to find figures for the creche unless they are handmade. The final days of Advent could be used for the O Antiphons (even for young children), or additional figures for Epiphany could be added: Camel, 3 wisemen, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

To make this even more accessible, there are wonderful hand-size Scripture booklets that the atrium uses. The Infancy Narratives are currently on sale at Liturgy Training Publications.

2. Overcoming Choice Paralysis

The Internet is full of different interpretations of the Jesse Tree. There are at least 16 to a maximum 28 symbols to choose. I do limit our choices for the days up to December 16 because I want the O Antiphons to be the central focus from December 17-23.

Catholic Culture has these choices for the Jesse Tree, also leaving the O Antiphons for the last week of Advent.

Catholic Culture’s Jesse Tree
1. Creation 11. Jesse
2. Adam and Eve 12. Mary (Always on December 8)
3. Fall of Man 13. David
4. Noah 14. King Solomon
5. Abraham 15. Jonah
6. Isaac 16. Judith
7. Jacob 17. Annunciation
8. Joseph 18. Visitation
9. Moses 19. Isaiah
10. Samuel 20. John the Baptist

It Doesn’t Have to Be Personal (all ages)

Earlier Catholic versions of the Jesse Tree did not only use Old Testament persons and events, but types of Christ and symbols of salvation history. Children love symbols. They are more open-ended, giving room for expansion and contemplation.

My family used a version from 1955, which had nineteen symbols, and then allowed for the O Antiphons in the last week of Advent. I also found these referenced as an “Advent Tree” from a Catholic art book from 1960 which also gives more ideas for symbols. Our family Jesse Tree was based on symbols and types of Christ, with a focus on the key points of Salvation History, so I do tend to gravitate to those choices:

Twelve Days of Christmas Kit Symbols
1. The Sun 11. The Sword of Judith
2. The Tablets of the Law 12. The Burning Bush
3. The Key of David 13. Noah’s Ark
4. Bethlehem 14. The Ark of the Covenant
5. The Root of Jesse 15. The Altar of Holocaust
6. The Star of David 16. The Apple
7. Jacob’s Ladder 17. The Paschal Lamb
8. Jonah in the Whale 18. The Pillar of Fire
9. The Temple 19. Manna
10. The Crown and Sceptre (Snowflakes)

The symbols don’t represent a person, but an event or a type of Christ in the role of Redemption.

The nuns of Regina Laudis had an earlier idea (1952) of ornaments for a “Christmas Tree.” These were not dated for days of December, but still the same idea of symbolic ornaments that are recalled in the liturgy of the Church. All of the O Antiphon symbols are included.

  1. Wisdom
  2. Alpha and Omega
  3. The Burning Bush
  4. Root of Jesse
  5. Key of David
  6. Sun of Justice
  7. King of Nations
  8. Cornerstone
  9. Emmanuel
  10. The Morning Star
  11. The Lamb of God
  12. Chi-Rho

The choices are endless, but that doesn’t need to create paralysis. The choices can change from year to year, there are pre-packaged versions, or even customizable sets.

3. Losing Track and Falling Behind

Advent always seems to have many more outside commitments due to the upcoming feast of Christmas: parades, recitals, shopping, sports, extra practices, parties, pageants, prayer services, and then for many there is holiday traveling. I am the first one to admit that I fall behind on numbered activities, and then I feel like I can’t just jump in unless I start from where I left off. Often that means there are many days I need to catch up, and then it can be overwhelming, so it all falls by the wayside.

Sadly, it has taken me years to figure that is one of my character flaws. The first approach to this is to remember that Advent returns every year. What we might miss this year will come around again to try for next year. Eventually the gaps will be filled.

My second solution is to not require long readings for each ornament. An ornament containing a symbol and scripture citation is enough. If there is a short blurb, fine, but we can look up the passage at our leisure and interest. Talking about the symbol or even just the visual is enough. The children also remember year to year so to hear their perspective on what the symbol means increases my enjoyment.

Finally, I have a radical suggestion: don’t number the Jesse Tree ornaments. If we follow the children, they often have periods of concentration which could mean wanting to do multiple Jesse Tree ornaments at once. Since the tradition is for them, let them lead how they want to do the tree. A countdown approach can be done with an Advent calendar; the Jesse Tree doesn’t have to be countdown style. In the original art depictions of the Jesse Tree the lineage is presented all in one visual, so there’s no rule stating how the Jesse Tree has to be one day at a time. It is nice to mark the days of Advent one-by-one, but a little burst of several at a time is also just as good.

Or what about hanging all the ornaments on the tree at the beginning of Advent and letting the children choose an ornament to find the passage in the Bible and read? This could be an individual work or done as a family.

4. Making the Perfect Ornament

Because there are so many options in presenting the Jesse Tree through ornaments: paper, felt, dough, fabric, yarn, wood, hand-crafted or store-bought that can also be an obstacle. I know from my own experience I have kept in my mind my mother’s ornaments that nothing else really fits the bill personally.

Often an adult’s own vision and perfectionism that gets in the way of the purpose of embracing this tradition. We want symmetry, beauty and perfection. A child also loves true beauty, but are not so critical of their work. It is the process of creating they love. Hand-drawn symbols on paper to cut and place on the tree can be just as pleasing and a wonderful memory. The purpose of the Jesse Tree is to unfold how God had a plan even from the beginning for our Redemption. How the symbols look is not as crucial as long as it brings our children closer to the themes of Advent.

5. Following the Child

My final suggestion draws on my thoughts in Part One. The child’s age, interest and capacity of the child should be the guide for the Jesse Tree in the home. This the main point I’d like to leave with my readers: put aside the preconceived ideas of the Jesse Tree and follow the child.

One of the questions I receive most often is “What can I do with my older children for this liturgical season?” There are so many family Advent traditions, but most of them directed to small children. The Jesse Tree is one tradition that can be postponed for older children, and has so much room for personal expansion. All the ways to do a Jesse Tree in the home are mere suggestions. Interpretations are limitless and children really enjoy making a tradition their own. As parents we can help lay the groundwork and facilitate, so the children can make their own Jesse Tree traditions.

As I mentioned in Part One, understanding the different phases of development of a child can help guide us in the work they do. Above are suggestions for younger ages, under 6. Between the ages of 6-9 is the beginning of of the age of reason, a sense of morality, starting to read and write and understanding the concept of time. The child can choose the ornaments and help design and make them. This age might need a bit more direction, but leave room for the child to search passages in the Bible, to copy Scripture, and read in context.

Ages 9-12 children tend to take more ownership. This is the age where they are examining the Liturgy and the Bible and putting it all together. All the Jesse Tree and O Antiphons can now be seen in context of the Past, Present and Future: Old Testament, fulfilled in Jesus in New Testament and the child’s role in cooperating with Redemption, and the future in Parousia. They love to research, so researching symbols, the Old Testament stories, Bible customs, etc. is perfect for this age. At this age they might want to make their own ornaments from scratch.

Adolescents can take this into a whole new direction and total ownership. Although not adults, they are trying to find their balance and role in the world. They are reaching the fullness of living the Faith. Before we were helping form their spiritual lives. There is still formation and direction, but it becomes more personal and blossoming on their own. All the Jesse Tree and O Antiphons can now be seen in full context of the liturgy. This is an opportunity to delve into the Missal and Liturgy of the Hours and the Bible and find the references. They can research art and symbols to make their own connections and creations.

Remembering the Basics

I was perusing my library and finding books and pamphlets that were some of the first to mention the Jesse Tree in the Catholic home, such as The Twelve Days of Christmas by Elsa Chaney and The Year and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland. I realized that my points in these long-winded posts are bringing back the original presentations of the Jesse Tree. It was a very organic, creative, and unique approach with no specifics on certain readings, symbols, prayers or order. See these entries in the Catholic Culture Liturgical Year Library for inspiration:

If I keep in mind that I want this to be a child-led activity to present the Old Testament and Salvation History in our domestic church, it can help me whittle down what is essential and keeping it all in context with the Advent Liturgy.

God’s plan of Redemption is rich and vast, but we don’t need to think we need to cover it all in one Advent. The Liturgical Year is a cycle that repeats annually and we have an opportunity to expand in our knowledge and contemplation of God-with-us.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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