In 2015, as my family raced through the fall, my then first grader and three-year-old were already talking about Christmas. Barely past his 7th birthday in October, my son had moved onto Christmas. One day he asked, “Why can’t we just skip to Christmas? Advent is so boring!”
At that moment, it was clear making an Advent wreath, lighting the candles, saying a nightly prayer, and using an Advent Calendar weren’t doing the job. My kids really didn’t understand why we observed the season of Advent at all! Truth be told, my husband is a priest and I am a lay professional in the Episcopal Church. I was left asking myself, “What’s missing? How could Advent become time our family loved, not time they just wanted to skip?”
I thought for a while and finally realized it was the story. My kids were, and are, avid readers. Whether it’s being read to or reading on their own, they love good stories. It dawned on me my husband and I had introduced all of these Advent practices without any background. Where could I find help telling the story? I jumped into Google with both feet knowing I didn’t have much time to get it together. Then, I came across the Jesse Tree.
My first introduction to a Jesse Tree was actually a few years earlier when I served as a parish youth minister. I was privileged to work alongside a gifted Children’s Minister who provided paper Jesse Tree kits for people to take home from the annual Advent workshop. The symbols and chronology of Jesus represented on the tree tell the bigger story and help explain why we can’t just skip to Christmas.
As I fell down rabbit holes on the internet, I found many Roman Catholic resources. I discovered beautiful and bright handmade felt ornaments, which I decided I wanted! I thought I’d order them and that would be that. I quickly realized it would not be so simple. There I was in early November on Etsy buying ornament patterns, felt, thread, and cardboard discs to make them. The patterns I bought just provided the scripture references. I knew we needed more than that. Searching, I stumbled on “Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas” by Ann Voskamp. The illustrations were beautiful, and it told the scripture with a story.
Who doesn’t need a giant, time sensitive craft project just as the holiday season amps up? Actually, no one, and there are many other ways to make a Jesse Tree. But me being me, I made the tree from an old wood palate. I cut and sewed the ornaments by hand.
Though daunting, making the ornaments became a gift. I cut the pieces sitting in my mother’s hospital room while she recovered from major surgery. Each year when I get out the ornaments, I am reminded of many people who held my family in prayer then. With only four ornaments finished we started on December 1st (This is when the book begins, depending on the resource you can also begin on the first Sunday of Advent). I made the rest as we went along.
When we began, my husband and I did all the reading. Now our kids take turns reading the scripture. Though the stories are in the same order each year, we dive a little deeper into them. My kids are learning to pronounce words like Habakkuk, Amittai, and Ephrathah. We’ve looked at maps and asked Alexa questions. And in the most unlikely moments they make a connection. Just last week, the song “Mary, Did You Know” came on in the car, and my now seven-year-old daughter said, “Of course Mary knew, the Angel Gabriel told her all about it. We will be reading that soon for the Jesse Tree.” A couple of years ago, nowhere near the season of Advent, my son leaned over during church and said, “This is in our Jesse Tree book.” It was the story of the anointing of King David.
My kids are also learning important things about their faith I hadn’t even imagined. We’ve read about not-so-perfect followers of God like Jonah. Though he did not listen to God the first time, God never stopped loving Jonah. We’ve talked about how we can be like Jonah, yet God still loves us and gives us second chances too.
Even though my daughter is good at reminding us to read and hang the ornament each night, things can get hectic and occasionally we miss. We either make it up the next morning or do two the next night. Some nights we have big discussions and sometimes we just take a deep breath, and remember why we can’t just skip to Christmas.