The idea of using a Jesse tree seems to have begun in the eleventh century. It seeks to illustrate the history of our faith by using the Old Testament prophecy that proclaimed the Messiah would come from the royal house of David. ‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11.1).
Medieval pictures show Jesse, the father of David, from whom a tree or a vine springs. The branches bear David and Jesus. Later artists have added further biblical figures, including Solomon and other kings of Israel, Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam and Eve and his spiritual ancestors such as Moses and the prophets. The Jesse tree has been depicted in almost every art form – sculpture, painting, manuscripts, woodcarving and stained glass. It continues to be a powerful way to present the significant figures of Christian faith and to understand the symbolism of preparation for the coming of the Christ.
This year we suggest the use of the Jesse tree as an Advent focus. Each Sunday includes suggestions for symbols to hang on the branches. Use more than one of each symbol, particularly if you have a large tree. Use a bare branch or a plain Christmas tree as a base. Alternatively, create an outline tree from paper or card and fasten it to a plain wall. Use whatever is appropriate for you. The symbols build up on the tree each week. Add traditional Christmas lights if you wish.
Advent 1 – 29th November Creation and the patriarchs: an apple. Symbols of the patriarchs, such as: • Noah – a rainbow, • Abraham– a tent, • Isaac – a ram, • Jacob – a ladder, • Joseph – a coat of many colours, • Ruth – a sheaf of barley, • David – a harp. The second coming/return of the king: crowns.
Advent 2 – 6th December Moses and the prophets: symbols such as: • Moses – stone tablets, • Isaiah – a scroll, • Jeremiah – a pot, • Ezekiel – a skeleton of dry bones, • Daniel – a lion. New beginnings/God in history: names or cut-out photos of world leaders.
Advent 3 – 13th December John the Baptist: a dove. What should we do?: cut-out question marks and newspaper headlines about current world issues.
Advent 4 – 20th December Mary and Joseph: a white rose, a saw. Challenging the norm: a cross surrounded by thorns, contrasting pictures of rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. Christmas Day A baby in the manger. Small photos, drawings or stars to represent our own place in the history of God’s people.
Why not start Advent by decorating your Christmas tree with the Jesse tree symbols and lights, as you follow the Sundays of Advent to tell the story of Jesus' family tree. You can then decorate the tree for Christmas, and not only go deeper into the story and meaning of his birth but also enjoy the tree and festive lights for longer.