The Jesse Tree is tool for preparation for Christmas. The name comes from Jesse of Bethlehem, King David’s father, and the quote from Isaiah 11:1, “… a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,” which foretells the coming of the Messiah. The beginning of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels mentions both Jesse and David in the genealogy of Jesus.
The Jesse tree begins with bare branches onto which a symbolic ornament is added daily until Christmas. (Some, myself included, continue adding ornaments throughout the Octave of Christmas. To that end I have the extras included here.) They are bare because the Israelite people were, and we are, waiting for the Messiah, but in our (Christians) case it is His return. Our naked hunger for the coming of Christ is open for all to see. (Remember, Advent is more about longing and preparing for the second coming than it is about the first coming of Jesus.) Daily throughout Advent a symbolic ornament is added to the bare branches of the Jesse Tree until Christmas. Each day is an opportunity to spend time with scripture as you or you and your family ready yourselves for the feast day. The number of symbols varies from year to year depending on the starting date, because the number of days in Advent varies from year to year. Advent always starts on the Sunday nearest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30).
The Jesse Tree traces the family tree of Jesus and the story of salvation history. It was already being used by at least the 11th century and depicted on church windows as early as the 13th century.
The symbols fall roughly into three groups:
1) The major Hebrew Testament patriarchs and figures from their histories, recounting the creation of the earth, the making of a great people, the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus, and how the Israelite nation began to prosper and then turn away from God.
2) The prophets who are the conscience of the Israelite people. Telling—no, haranguing—them to return to God, the true God, or suffer the consequences. These speakers of the uncomfortable truth foretell of a Messiah who will deliver the people from the fate of their disloyalty: the sacking of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.
3) The family of Jesus and the story of His birth: As mentioned, Jesse and David appear in both Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogies, but beyond that there is little agreement. So here you can take some creative license (as the Evangelists have taken!). There are many compelling stories hidden in the long lists of names. Paying attention to Matthew’s genealogy a bit, you will find “fallen” women. These women are often great role models, because they are strong and God-fearing and often put God’s law above human customs and traditions. Their stories also remind us that God’s plan does not always follow a straight path, nor does God always choose the obvious people. Take heart in these stories! Any one of us can do great things in God’s plan. Anyway, read the genealogies, look up some of the names and add them to your tree. I have selected a few of my favorites as examples.
Be creative with your symbols, but remember that this is a teaching tool, and a way to bring the story of salvation alive in your family’s preparation for Christmas, or as an aid to personal meditation on how God worked through history and how God is working in your life now. The main thing is the story, not the beauty of the symbols (cotton ball sheep is completely acceptable!). Encourage your children to help, and be sure to tell the story!!
Jesse Tree: The Symbols of Advent 2020
Topic Symbol Bible Reference
1) Creation Earth Gen 1:1-4a
2) Adam & Eve Apple Gen 3:15 (first promise)
3) Noah Ark Gen 9:8-15 (covenant)
4) Abraham and Sarah Field of Stars Gen 15: 4-5, 17: 6-7, 18:1, 9-10a (new
5) Isaac Wood Gen 22: 2-8 (trust)
6) Jacob Ladder Gen 28:12-15 (I am with you)
7) Judah Lion Gen 49:8-10 (Not the first born
nor the most famous. God works
as He sees fit
8) Joseph Coat Gen 37:3-4, 20, 24, 28 41:25, 29-30a, 57
(good from evil)
9) Passover & Exodus Lamb Ex 12:21-23 (lamb = Jesus)
10) Moses Tablets of the Law Ex 31:18 (Spoke to God)
11) Joshua Ram’s Horn Joshua 6:2-5 (Trust)
12) Ruth Heart Ruth 1:16-18 (Fidelity)
13) Hannah Goblet of Wine 1 Sam 1:10-18, 20 (Belief)
14) Samuel An Ear 1 Sam 3:4-10 (Listen)
15) David Shepherd 1 Sam 16:1, 12-13 (Flawed man)
16) Bathsheba A Bathtub 2 Sam 11: 2- 4a; 14-17; 26- 27
17) Elijah Fire Malachi 13:23-24a (Baptist)
18) Jeremiah A map Jeremiah 31:8-9,14 (Return from Exile)
19) Isaiah Candle Is 9:1-6 (Promise of Messiah)
20) Daniel Throne/Crown Dan 7:13-14 (Son of Man)
21) Bethlehem Picture of the City Micah 5:1-2 (Prophecy)
22.) Zechariah Pen and paper Luke 1: 8, 11-13, 18-20 (Bridge between
Old and New Testaments)
23 Elizabeth Mother & Child Luke 1:24-25, 44-45 (Joy)
24) John the Baptizer Shell Luke 3: 2-6 (New Elijah)
25) Joseph Carpenter’s tools Matt 1: 19-24
26) Mary Lily Luke 1:26-28, 31-34
27) Jesus Star Luke 2:1-18
Angels Angel Matt 1:20; Luke 1:13, Luke 1:26-32,
2:8-10 (messengers of God)
Shepherds Shepherds Luke 2:15-16
Star Star Matt 2:1-2
Magi Gifts/Magi Matt 2:10-11 (worship)
Doves Doves Luke 2:22-32. 36-38
Innocents Baby boys Matt 2:16
Holy Family Your Family (mirror) Luke 2: 43, 48 -52
Blessing for Jesse Tree
Dear Lord God, as we begin our preparation to celebrate the birth of your Son, Jesus our Savior, bless this tree. Bless these ornaments, too. May this journey through salvation history open our hearts to joyfully watch for and fully receive the best Christmas gift of all—Jesus Christ in whose name we make this prayer. Amen