Tree of Knowledge: Grow in your understanding of salvation history with the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree
NOTE: Find a full set of Jesse Tree ornaments created for North Texas Catholic readers by the artist Maria Diaz here.
In December, you’ll find car magnets saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas,” and in the spring, yard signs boast, “He is Risen!”
But what about Advent?
Advent often gets subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations.
Several traditions — Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, and Jesse Trees — can help the faithful focus on the Advent season, when we prepare our hearts and minds for the anniversary of Jesus’ birth and His second coming at the end of time.
While Jesse Trees might not be as ubiquitous as Advent wreaths or Advent calendars, they are much older — dating back at least to 1086 when a Gospel manuscript features an illustration of a Jesse Tree.
Tapestries and stained-glass windows from the medieval era also depict Jesse Trees.
What is a Jesse Tree?
A Jesse Tree helps tell the story of salvation history, from creation to the birth of Jesus by using illustrations or ornaments portraying Old Testament stories, people, or prophecies. Some use the tree that they will later use as their Christmas tree; others use a branch or a paper tree.
Jesse Trees derive their name from the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.”
Angie Smith and her family, parishioners at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Arlington, have marked Advent with a Jesse Tree for ten years.
Each evening of Advent, a family member places a handmade ornament on the tree and reads the related Bible passage.
The tradition teaches a valuable lesson, Smith said. “We’re not just counting down to Christmas morning and presents — we’re counting down to Jesus, and it took a whole bunch of people to get there. I really enjoy the faith aspect of anticipation that comes with the Jesse Tree,” said the mother of three.
Smith’s children have favorite ornaments. Her daughter claims the pink shell representing John the Baptist, and her oldest son’s favorite is the candle representing the light of Christ. Smith’s choice: the Key of David, “because it looks really awesome, and I worked really hard on it.”
No Tree Alike
Deacon Andrew Thomas of Saint Martin de Porres Parish said the Prosper congregation made Jesse Tree ornaments as a family faith formation activity a few years back, then used them to decorate a tree in the church’s narthex during Advent. “They really did enjoy it,” he remembered.
There’s not one correct set of ornaments for a Jesse Tree. Dcn. Thomas has seen representations with the descendants of Jesus from Matthew’s genealogy, “really fun” Old Testament stories, or individuals who prefigure Jesus, like Noah and Joseph.
“There’s lots of ways to do it. With the Jesse Trees that I’ve seen, there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of picking particular Biblical stories that point to God saving His people,” said Dcn. Thomas.
The Old Testament has no shortage of examples. Dcn. Thomas explained, “Our God is so loving and so merciful that whenever we need a deliverer and turn to Him, He’ll send someone. That leads to Jesus Christ.”
“If we want to know the fullness of who Jesus is and what He does for us, having an understanding of the Old Testament is so important,” he continued. “In looking at those Old Testament accounts, for God to deliver, there’s some act of the people to acknowledge their need for repentance and to reignite their trust in God’s promises.”
Like our Old Testament forebears, we also need to repent and reignite our trust in God’s promises — appropriate reflection points during Advent.
Dcn. Thomas, who serves as the director of religious education at St. Martin de Porres, admitted that the trappings of December, such as school programs, shopping, and parties, can make spiritual preparation for Christmas a challenge.
“Doing these activities like the Jesse Tree are ways for us to reinvigorate in terms of our traditions. Just spend those limited four weeks acknowledging the past through salvation history, culminating in the birth of Christ,” he advised.