I originally wrote this post several years ago when I still had small children. I had seen more and more posts in my various Facebook groups/online forums/etc. asking about holiday traditions. More specifically, most of these questions were about Jesse trees as they were gaining popularity at the time. How does your family do a Jesse Tree? Where can I find ornaments for a Jesse Tree? What books are there to walk you through doing a Jesse Tree? What in the world is a Jesse Tree?
Because we had included a Jesse Tree in our holiday traditions for several years, I decided I would write about what it looked like for us. Our way of doing this has changed slightly over the last few years, and we’ve added other traditions, so I thought I might re-visit this post! I also have a free printable for you at the very end!
The Jesse Tree
I had heard of the Jesse Tree in the years before we actually started doing it for our son’s second Christmas. The idea is to go through the generations (or family tree) before Christ on the days leading up to Christmas. Each day, a new ornament representing a different generation (or branch) is hung on the tree. Then, either a story about that part of the line or the corresponding Bible verses are read. It’s very simple, and I think that was what appealed to me.
I was unclear of where to start, though, and that first Christmas, I ended up finding a free printable Jesse tree guide on the internet (it’s no longer available). It came with printable ornaments that were not very good quality, and my husband traveled quite a bit that year in December, and I was still struggling with parenting on my own when he was away, and…well, you can probably see where this is going. We did it dutifully the first few days, but the nightly practice of reading a story and hanging an ornament on our Jesse Tree quickly fell by the wayside.
The following year, I decided to splurge and ordered a whole set of Jesse tree ornaments from Etsy. It also came with a little guide for each ornament that listed Bible verses or the specific story that it represented and a short prayer. We were all prepared, and I didn’t need to do anything other than string the ornaments and find a nice branch to use for our tree. Our son was also two, which means he kind of sort of got that we were doing something out of the ordinary, and my husband was in town, so I really had no excuses. We made it through all 28 days that year, and we’ve done it each year since.
Our Jesse Tree Traditions
There are many options out there for how to begin your Jesse tree tradition. Our particular set happens to have 28 ornaments, so we always start 27 days before Christmas (November 28th). I have seen other sets that only have 25 ornaments, so they begin on December 1st. And some guides don’t have the Jesse tree even starting until the first Sunday of Advent, so that will affect how many ornaments you use as well. Of course, you don’t have to use all of the ornaments if you’d rather not.
In the past, during hikes in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we’d keep an eye out for any branches that look like they’d make a good Jesse tree. Usually, we’d try to get one from a place with special meaning, like a preferred hiking spot or from a tree in the yard of our new home. Of course, there were also some years where we went under cover of darkness and chopped one off of a tree in a common area in our neighborhood (before we had a yard) or even ran out five minutes before we were starting and yanked whatever we could find off a bush. Anything works! I also attempted to use the same branch over multiple years, but it never really survived being stored in our Christmas storage tote or was accidentally thrown away.
To display ours, I got a simple glass vase from a craft store, filled it with dried navy beans, and perched the branch in that. At one point, we also got LED wire lights to wrap around the branch as well. It does get heavier as the month goes on, so this is something to keep in mind when choosing a branch and how you’re going to display it. A few years ago, I splurged again and got some LED-pre-wrapped branches that we use every year now. They’re very sturdy and don’t tip over, which was a problem we sometimes had with the branches we grabbed from outside if they were uneven.
Then, on November 28th, before supper, we pull out our basket of ornaments, and one of us reads the story from our preferred book for that day’s ornament. Until about a year or two ago, most of the stories came from The Jesus Storybook Bible. The ones that weren’t in that book would be taken from The Jesus Calling Bible Storybook or The Children of God Storybook Bible. I also wanted to include the Catherine Vos Child’s Story Bible, but those readings were usually too long for us.
Since about two years ago, we’ve switched to Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift for the stories that match our ornaments. When you buy a set of ornaments but decide to use a book or guide from somewhere else, you may find that some of the stories don’t line up, so you’ll need to determine how you want to handle that before you begin. I’ve gone through the guide that came with our ornaments and noted which Bible or book to use for each story, which has made this tradition easier.
There are also many guides available on the internet (like this one), and many sets you buy include them as well. You can also get books from the library – I’ve always thought this one was particularly beautiful and a friend especially loves this one. You could even just take the list below and read those particular stories straight from the Bible – whatever works for you! There are no hard and fast rules to any of this. Just do whatever will help your family embrace the tradition!
Our set of stories goes through the following line (which you can find also as a free printable with Bible references at the end of this post!):
- The Earth/Creation
- The Apple/Adam and Eve
- The Ark/Noah
- The Camel/Abraham
- The Ram/Isaac
- The Ladder/Jacob
- The Coat/Joseph
- The Basket/Miriam
- The Tablets/Moses
- The Horn/Joshua
- The Wheat/Ruth
- The Tree/Jesse (we actually start with this one before we do the earth/creation)
- The Oil Lamp/Samuel
- The Harp/David
- The Crown/Solomon
- The Stones/Elijah
- The Walls/Nehemiah
- The Scroll/Isaiah
- The Clay Pot/Jeremiah (this one is tough to find stories for, so we usually end up just reading the Bible verses)
- The Lion/Daniel
- The Big Fish/Jonah
- The Prayer Shawl/Zechariah and Elizabeth
- The Shell/John the Baptist
- The Hammer/Joseph
- The Angel/Gabriel
- The Lily/Mary
- The Star and Town/Bethlehem
- The Manger/Jesus
After the story, we pull out the ornament, and the kids alternate turns hanging it on the tree. I really like the ornaments we have, but there are so many ways to do this. There are free printable ones that your kids can color, free printable ones that are already colored, kits to put together your own wooden versions, as well as wooden ones that have the Bible references on the back (which is pretty handy). If you’re a crafty person (I am not 🙂 ), you can also make your own, like these felt versions or this stick version (which also comes with a guide). A friend told me about these sewing patterns that her 3rd-grade son made, and it sounded like a wonderful handicraft idea. You could even just collect random ornaments that match the daily themes. If you do a quick search on Google or Pinterest for homemade/printable Jesse Tree ornaments, the ideas abound.
And that’s it. If we miss a day, we will usually make up for it by doing that ornament at breakfast the next day and then another one at supper. By the time Christmas rolls around, we have a lovely tree filled with ornaments, and hopefully, at least one person in our family has learned a little more about the stories leading up to Christ’s birth!
The Jesse Tree is pretty simple, but it can be challenging to hang the ornament every day for 28 days if your holiday schedule is full. The Advent Wreath is another option that is quite a bit simpler than the Jesse Tree, but the tradition is much older. The idea is the same in that it is meant to prepare you for the days leading up to Christmas, allowing you to focus on the deeper meaning of the season.
As with the Jesse Tree, there are also different ways to do an Advent Wreath. In our family, we go with the more traditional practice of using three purple or blue candles and one pink candle, as well as a white candle in the center to be lit on Christmas Eve. Various denominations follow this tradition as well, while other churches use only purple or blue candles.
Again, before Thanksgiving each year, I order an Advent candle kit so the kids can roll the candles and be part of the process of preparing for Advent. You can also buy just regular candles that follow the color tradition, or just use whatever candles you happen to have in your home, regardless of the color!
To display ours, we have a beautiful, metal Celtic Advent wreath that I absolutely love. If we did not already have that, I would get one of the candleholders from Liturgy Wood as I love their simplicity and elegance. You could also just use regular candle holders if you’d like or go with a simpler Advent wreath. A few of the churches we’ve attended in the past also had an annual tradition of planning a day for families to come in for everyone to make Advent wreaths together (similar to the ones described here) and your church, or one near you, and may do the same.
In the past, we’ve used Advent guides from the internet for readings and prayers. You can print out a guide for the four weeks of Advent here, as well as a guide for Christmas Eve here. However, in the last two years, we’ve started using my Advent Art Devotions guide instead of the ones linked above, and these have been a wonderful way to include art in our Avent traditions as well.
Our Advent Wreath Traditions
We begin on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which is also the first day of Advent and the beginning of the new liturgical year. Before supper, we make the room dark and light the first of our Advent candles which is one of the purple or blue ones. Then we look at the art for that week while one of us reads the Bible passage. This is followed by listening to the hymn for that week, and then one of us reads the poem.
We repeat this the following three Sundays, lighting the pink (or Joy candle) on the third Sunday and finally lighting the white Christ candle in the center on Christmas Eve. Some years we light the candles that we’ve lit so far every night during supper so we can eat in candlelight, and some years we only light them on Sundays. Either way, we always keep the wreath in the center of the table during this time of the year.
And so those are the very simple holiday traditions that we’ve been practicing each year since our oldest child was tiny. My hope is that our kids can look back on the Christmases of their childhood and have fond memories of these traditions that inspire them to do the same with their families.
There are, of course, other ways to add more meaning to this time of year as well!
- As I mentioned above, I offer Advent Art Devotions and art prints in my shop, and these can be done without the Advent wreath as well. These are carefully curated selections for each week of Advent printed on heavy, smooth finish cardstock, as well as a guide with Bible verses, hymns, and poetry to accompany each piece. If you’d rather print it all at home, there’s an option for that as well!
- Cindy Rollins wrote a guide for walking through Handel’s Messiah during the 25 days before Christmas that sounds amazing. She also outlined steps on her blog to do this, though the book looks more comprehensive.
- The Giving Manger is an interesting concept that puts more focus on acts of service during the holidays. We don’t have one, and I haven’t seen it in person, but it’s another (adorable) tradition to add more meaning to the holidays, especially for kids.
- An Advent Spiral is another beautiful way to count down the season that I would probably do if we didn’t already have the Jesse Tree. I love the idea of lighting a new candle every day and watching as Mary makes her way to Bethlehem.
Our tradition may change over the years, but I’m happy with where it is now and the fact that the kids are already asking when we’ll be starting the Jesse Tree this year!
Free Holiday Printable Bundle!
To make putting together your own Jesse tree holiday tradition a little easier, I’ve designed a free Jesse tree guide for you to download! It includes the above list of 28 days of topics for you to read through during the days leading up to Christmas as well as Bible references for each topic as well. I’ve also included two pages from my Advent Art Devotions Volume I for you to add some fine art to your holiday traditions! Fill out the form below to receive your free printables!