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Right around this time of year recently, I’ve been seeing more and more posts in my various Facebook groups/online forums/etc. asking if anyone can give a little guidance on Jesse Trees. 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?
So, in the interest of having a place I can point people to when they ask this question, here’s a quick little description with a few links and ideas covering how our family partakes in the Jesse Tree tradition and Advent Wreath each year.
Neither E nor I had any experience with either one of these when were growing up. Family holiday traditions are not something that were a big part of my childhood, though we did always manage to have a tree and presents. When B came along, however, I had a lot of visions of what I wanted his childhood to look like and at least a few of them included some more special traditions that emphasized the meaning behind the holiday rather than just a tree and presents. So I began looking at different types of holiday traditions that other families practiced and eventually decided to try two: a Jesse Tree and an Advent Wreath.
The Jesse Tree
I seem to remember that I had heard of the Jesse Tree in the years before we actually started doing it. The idea is to go through the generations before Christ on the days leading up to Christmas. Each day, a new ornament, representing a different story (or branch) of the tree is presented and either a story about that part of the line or the corresponding Bible verses are read. It’s really very simple and I think that was what appealed to me.
I was honestly unclear of where to start, though, and the Christmas after B turned one, I ended up finding a free printable Jesse tree guide somewhere (it’s no longer available) that came with printable ornaments that were not very good quality….and, well, you can probably see where this is going. E traveled quite a bit that year in December and I was still struggling with parenting on my own when he was away, so the nightly practice of reading a story and hanging an ornament on our Jesse Tree fell by the wayside.
The following year, I decided to just splurge and ordered a whole set from Etsy. It also came with a little guide for each ornament that listed Bible verses or the specific story that it represented as well as a short prayer, so we were all prepared and I didn’t really need to do anything other than string the ornaments and find a nice branch to use for our tree. B was also two (which means he actually kind of sort of got that we were doing something out of the ordinary) and E was in town, so I really had no excuses and I’d say it was a success as we’ve done it each year since. 🙂
To prepare for it, before Thanksgiving comes around, I take a look at the calendar and figure out when we need to start. Our particular set happens to have 28 ornaments (so we start 27 days before Christmas), but many of them only have 25 so you don’t start until December 1st, while still other guides only start the first Sunday of Advent before Christmas. I like to use our entire set, so we just do all of them and always start on November 28th.
We then go in search of a branch to use. I like it to have a special meaning, if possible, so there have been years when we’ve gone specifically in search of one while out for a hike at one of our favorite places, or last year, one from our new yard. There have also been some years where we’ve gone under cover of darkness and chopped one off a tree in a common area in our neighborhood (this was in our old house where we didn’t have a yard) or even ran out five minutes before we were starting and yanked whatever we could find off a bush. Whatever works! It would actually probably make my life simpler by just using the same branch every year, but where’s the fun in that? There are also special Jesse Tree stands you can buy, but I honestly think a branch is a whole lot prettier and is definitely cheaper.
To display ours, I got a simple glass vase from a craft store, filled it with dried navy beans, and perch the branch in that. There have been a few times that I’ve thought about getting little LED lights to wrap around the branches, but I also like just how simple it is now. 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.
Then, on the designated day after supper, we pull out our basket of ornaments and E and I alternate reading whatever Bible story it happens to be. A few years ago, I went through all of the individual stories and found, what I thought were, the best versions in our various children’s Bibles (usually The Jesus Storybook Bible wins), referencing it on the card that came with the ornaments so we would know for future years. A good friend also sent me Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift a few years ago and when the kids are older, I’d like to try that one as well.
There are many guides available on the internet (like this one) and many sets you buy include them as well. You can also find guides at the library – I’ve always thought this one to be particularly beautiful. You could also take the list below and just 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:
- 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 (many guides actually suggest that you start with this one and then move on to creation or Adam and Eve)
- 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 very difficult to find stories for, so we usually end up just reading the Bible verses)
- The Lion/Daniel
- The Big Fish/Jonah
- The Prayer Shawl/Zachariah 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 nights of 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 similar to the ones we have 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). My friend Dawn told me about these sewing patterns that her 3rd-grade son made and it sounded like a wonderful handicraft idea that I think I might try with B in a few years. If you do a quick search on Google or Pinterest for homemade/printable Jesse Tree ornaments, the ideas abound.
And that’s it. By the time Christmas rolls around, you have a lovely tree filled with ornaments and hopefully at least one person in your family has learned a little more about the stories leading up to Christ’s birth!
The Advent Wreath is quite a bit simpler than the Jesse Tree, but the tradition is older and was something we did in our old church (as well as our new church), so we decided to try it at home. 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. Both of the Episcopal churches we’ve attended as well as the non-denominational evangelical church we used to attend all follow this tradition as well. In other churches, only purple candles are used, while still others use all 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. Of course, C hasn’t participated much in this yet, but B enjoys it every year. You can also buy just regular old candles that follow the color tradition, or just use whatever candles you happen to have in your home! I don’t think it really matters what color they are. 🙂
To display ours, several years ago I splurged again and picked up this beautiful, metal Celtic Advent wreath that I absolutely love. You definitely, definitely do not have to go this fancy and just use regular candle holders if you’d like, or go with a simpler Advent Wreath. Our church also has an annual tradition of having a day for families to come in and everyone makes Advent Wreaths together to use for that season (similar to the ones described here) and your church, or one near you, may do the same.
You can print out the guide we use for the four weeks of Advent here as well as the guide we use for Christmas Eve here (you could also use this one for the Sundays of Advent as it’s much simpler, but I like the Bible passages in the other guide). 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. While one of us is lighting it, we say, “I light this candle to remind us that we must prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child.” Then we read the prayer and Bible verses listed in the Advent guide, as well as the hymn at the end (and the additional prayers for the other Sundays).
We repeat this the following three Sundays, lighting the 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 our very simple holiday traditions that we’ve been practicing each year since B was tiny. My hope is that our kids can look back on the Christmases of their childhood and conjure up some memories including the Jesse Tree and the Advent Wreath. 🙂
There are, of course, other ways to add more meaning to this time of year as well!
- If you’re interested in incorporating art in your Advent traditions, I offer Advent Art Devotions and prints in my shop! These are carefully-curated selections for each week of Advent printed on 120 lb. silk cover as well as a guide with Bible verses, hymns, and poetry to accompany each piece. If you’d rather print at home, there’s an option for that as well!
- Cindy Rollins (of the Mason Jar Podcast), just wrote a guide for walking through Handel’s Messiah during the 25 days before Christmas that sounds amazing (the print version is sold out, but you can still get the ebook version). 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 countdown 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. 🙂