Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree

As I grew up, we marked the days until Christmas with this advent calendar that my mother made.  I have fond memories of my siblings and I competing to get to put up our favorite ornaments, and of course to put up Santa on the 24th.  But once my own children came along, I wanted a way to mark the days until Christmas that keep their focus on the reason for the celebration–the birth of our Savior Christ–and not just on the anticipation of presents to be opened as soon as they can coax us out of bed on Christmas morning.  And that desire to focus on the real reason for the season is what led us to the Jesse Tree.

So what is a Jesse Tree?  Well, the name comes from Isaiah 11:1-2, “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse and a branch from his root will bear fruit.  And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon Him”  That shoot from the stem of Jesse?  It was Jesus.  So in essence, a Jesse Tree traces the story of our Savior.  How the plan for our salvation was crafted before any of us were even a gleam in anyone’s eye but God’s.  And while Jesse Trees are somewhat new to modern Christmas tradition, they actually were in use in churches centuries ago.  Allow me to share with you this explanation from The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean:

Jesse trees were the Bible-storybooks of unlettered people.  A priest could point to the figures or symbols and tell the stories of the Old Testament kings, prophets, heroines, warriors.  And the tree itself served to show how the New Testament grew out of the Old; how, for Christians, the birth of Jesus was not just a beginning, but a completion.


Through the years, I’ve used three different resources and two different tree incarnations for our Jesse Tree.  The first resource I used was the book I mentioned above, The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughean, and it remains dear to my heart.  It’s the story of an old wood carver carving a Jesse Tree for a church and a persistent boy who intrudes on the carver’s quiet solitude and draws out of him the stories that go with each carving.  While the carver is quite gruff at first, both he and the boy are transformed by the end of the story–both changed for the better by their chance encounter with each other and their shared time remembering, sharing, and celebrating the stories of the lineage of Jesus.  It’s a beautiful book, and has 24 stories–one for each day in December.  The only drawback was that it contains beautiful illustrations, but no templates for you to use for ornaments on your own Jesse Tree- so you have to either be creative and make your own, or find clip art to represent each one.

The completed Jesse Tree that the carver carves.

  Thinking I would just get around the ornament problem by ordering a booklet that contained templates, I ordered The Jesse Tree by Linda Lawrence and Donna Hubbard.  That features 20 days worth of Jesse Tree stories, each with a short scripture reading and meditation, suggestions for covering that story with young children, and a Bible study on related ideas.  Some also have suggested family activities.  They give instructions in the back of the booklet for making your own ornaments and the booklet also contains ornaments printed on card stock that you can just color and use. The reason this one has only 20 days is that there is no devotion for each of the 4 Sundays in Advent.  I’m not sure why that is, but maybe because church is meant to negate the need for a devotional on Sunday, or maybe because liturgical church folks typically mark the Sundays in Advent with an Advent wreath.

 Whatever the reason, did you catch that there are only 20 days in this second book, and the other book had 25?  Yes, that was my first introduction to this truth–no two Jesse Tree devotionals are alike!!!  Remember I said I have 3 resources?  Well, all three of them commemorate different stories on their Jesse Trees.  Sure, some of the stories are the same– Creation, sin entering the world, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, etc.  But each also uses some unique stories.

Which brings me to my third resource, “A Jesse Tree Journey” by Ann Voskamp.  This is a free download if you sign up for her blog e-mails.  It is the most comprehensive and longest of all the Jesse Tree devotionals I have.  It is meant to begin on November 29th, and there is a devotional for each day including Christmas.  It is beautiful; just move-you-to-tears breath-taking in its focus on God and His love for us that would lead Him to reach out to a fallen world with a plan of redemption that involves the death of His only begotten Son.  It too includes color ornaments that you can print and use, or black and white ones that your own family can add the color to.  I chose to print the color ones and laminate them. Each day in Ann’s devotional has the complete Scripture text printed for you to read, a devotional to go with it, a prayer, and one action step you can take to apply the lesson to your day that day.

Finally, you may be thinking, this is all great, but WHAT exactly should a Jesse Tree look like?  The answers to that are as varied as the devotionals themselves.  Some people use a real tree branch, or tree branches, in a pot to hang their ornaments from.  Some simply hang the ornaments on the normal Christmas tree.  Others, including myself, use some sort of tree silhouette made from paper or fabric, or even painted on glass like a sliding glass door, to attach their ornaments to.  I’ve had two different paper trees.  The first one below was more of a true “Jesse Tree shape” in that it had a stump and then this long thin shoot growing out of it.  Because I taped it to the wall, I used it year round, and the only picture I have is the one below of our fall leaves on it!


 The most current tree I have is this more traditional tree shape.  It better suits the “year round tree” idea, but it not nearly as representative of the “shoot from Jesse”.  It’s working for us right now though, and that’s what’s important.  It doesn’t look very impressive yet, but wait until it has all 27 ornaments on it!

 The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what your tree looks like.  And it doesn’t matter how many days your devotional has or what stories it contains.  The purpose of the Jesse Tree is to point our hearts toward the heart of God.  To remind us of His love for us, and His plan for our salvation.  A plan whose roots go as deep as Creation itself, and whose growth can be clearly traced through the history of His people from the Old Testament right through the birth of Jesus.  No matter what method you choose for your own Jesse Tree, your family will be blessed by the time you spend reminding yourselves of the real reason to celebrate Christmas–God’s promises fulfilled in the birth of our Savior.  Celebrate His faithfulness, His love, and His grace this holiday season!
Amy and her husband Eric live in Central Florida with their four children, five chickens, three cats, two dogs, one bunny, and one hamster.  Life is crazy, to be sure, but she wouldn’t have it any other way!  When she’s not shuttling her kids from activity to activity, you can usually find them schooling in their bomb shelter-turned-schoolroom…or playing hooky at Disney World.  You can read more about their homeschool adventures, and scores of reviews from Amy’s four and a half years on the Schoolhouse Review Crew, at http://oneblessedmamma.blogspot.com.

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