Christmas traditions: The Jesse Tree

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The dim light of a singular Advent wreath candle was all that lit the dining room table as my mother squinted to read the words on the page. My brother and I adamantly insisted that at night on all Sundays in Advent, the house should be pitch black except for the wreath’s candles. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, this was a reasonable demand, but on the first, a few more candles would have done my mother’s eyesight some good.

She was attempting to read from the Bible as part of our Christmas tradition — the Jesse Tree. Fortunately, she used a children’s Bible, so the large print was easier to read in the dark. On every first Sunday of Advent, she began by reading the verse from which the Jesse Tree is derived.

The tradition is rooted, pun intended, in Isaiah 11:1, which says, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” Jesse was the father of David, out of whose lineage the Messiah was promised to come. Little is known about the other side of David’s family, except that his mother, Jesse’s girl, was highly sought after.

Throughout the short days and long nights of Advent, the Jesse Tree chronicles the stories of the generations leading up to the birth of Our Lord found in the Bible. Although the tree is named after Jesse, the tree goes back further than that. The epic begins with the creation of Adam and Eve and ends with the Nativity on Christmas Eve.

Each night had a new story, which my mother read to us from our children’s Bible in the same storytelling voice she used to read us the “Chronicles of Narnia”, and with each new story a new ornament was added to the Jesse Tree.

While it would have been perfectly acceptable for my mother to print out the ornaments that adorn the Jesse Tree — and there are ample resources online for anyone inspired to make their own — she is the artistic type and instead crafted each ornament individually out of felt. 

The tree itself was also made of felt, so the ornaments stuck to it like makeshift velcro. Perhaps some adhesive should have been in order, because as Advent went on, it became increasingly difficult to put the next ornament on without knocking off any of the previous precariously-placed ornaments.

Although my brother and I did not know the truth about Santa Claus until we were 12, because my family did the Jesse Tree and the Advent wreath, keeping Christ in Christmas came naturally to my family. Keeping up a habit of family prayer or Scripture reading can be difficult, especially as kids get older, but the Jesse Tree always brought us together every year during Advent, even if that habit did not continue past opening the presents Christmas morning.

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