Jesse Tree: An Introduction


Yes! Last Sunday was the start of the liturgical new year! Yep, we start off our liturgical new year with the very beginning of Advent, which is a very nice place to start it, if you think about it. After all, Advent is the time where we wait in eager anticipation for our Lord to come. And what better way to start off the new year?

Now, last year, we did a Jesse Tree together, and it was so fun that I would like to do it again! Which begs the question…

What is a Jesse Tree?

The term “Jesse Tree” comes from the Book of Isaiah in which the Prophet Isaiah states that, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that bud! But, Jesus Christ did not come alone as a mighty God devoid of any humanity. He came to us from a family. This is evident from even just a cursory look at the gospels: both Mary’s and Joseph’s ancestors are recounted in the gospels. Mary’s family is recounted in Luke 3:23-38, while Joseph’s family is recounted in Matthew 1:1-17.

Now, this family that Jesus came from was not perfect. Far from it, in fact… many of the stories are painfully raw. And yet, though they sinned and fell short often, they strove to know and serve God throughout it all, and God promised them salvation.

And so, the Jesse Tree is a sort of tradition that we can do in order to remember the ancestors of Christ and retell their stories… as well as honor our Lord and recognize that He is the Messiah and the one who has come to save us.

Jesse Tree in History

Now, the Jesse Tree is actually a pretty old tradition. It starts back in the medieval tradition… people would recognize the ancestors of Jesus through art. For instance, take a look at this picture, which was taken from an old manuscript.

The Tree of Jesse, c. 1240-50. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, United States.
The Tree of Jesse, c. 1240-50. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, United States.

But it wasn’t just illustrations in books. After all, in the Middle Ages, only the educated could read, and not many were educated. Instead, they would display it in these beautiful stained glass illustrations for all the faithful to see when they went on pilgramages to the great gothic cathedrals. Check out this beautiful stained glass that depicts the Jesse Tree, from the Basilica of Saint Denis, which was completed in the twelfth century.

The stained glass rose window of the north transept of the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris, France. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
The stained glass rose window of the north transept of the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris, France. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Isn’t it lovely??? Note that the middle circle is Jesse, with what looks to be a sprig coming from him, and he is surrounded by his children and their children, etc. Make sure to click on it so you can see all the gorgeous details!

And so, back then, the Jesse Tree was mostly celebrated, not as an Advent tradition, but rather in the context of going on a pilgrimage and going to these beautiful Gothic churches and being overwhelmed by the beauty that these churches held. So, basically, the pilgrims would wander around these churches and pray in them while looking upon these beautiful images and meditating on Christ.

Modern Jesse Tree

Nowadays, the Jesse Tree is celebrated a lot differently!

While it’s not quite clear how the modern Jesse Tree came into being, my guess is that there were some Christians who were alarmed how the Advent season was basically being watered down and turned into a consumerist experience. The Christ Child was shoved out of the way and Santa Claus, as depicted and sponsored by the Coca Cola company, took the place of Christ. Clearly something needed to be done!

And so, while researching various Advent devotions, my guess is that these Christians stumbled across the story of Jesse Tree, fell in love with the beauty of this tradition, and started that tradition instead… this time, by focusing on the ancestors of Christ through scripture and symbols. Thus, in the days leading up to Christmas, there are daily readings that delve deeply into the Old Testament, as well as some from the New Testament, so that we may long for the coming of Christ.

Now, there are many ways to celebrate the Jesse Tree! After all, this is a very new tradition and nothing has been standardized yet. So there are lots of different readings and ways to celebrate it that are all wonderful in their own way.

For instance, since I have pretty young kids, last year I crocheted a bunch of ornaments to represent each of the stories and we sort of integrated with the Advent calendar that has chocolates for the kids. So, before we would give the kids chocolates, we would read one of the stories and pin the Jesse Tree ornament on the Advent Calendar, like so…

Here is the Advent Calendar, all filled out with all the Jesse Tree ornaments!

Like I said, it’s a fun tradition! 🙂

An… Illustrated Jesse Tree?

Of course, I can’t give you chocolates right now! But, let’s celebrate a Jesse Tree together anyway. Tomorrow, and every day until Christmas, I’ll share scripture from the bible that will show us how God loved us from the very beginning, starting from the very beginning… and by that I mean Creation! And each story I’ll profusely illustrate each story with religious art from all over the world.

Yup. That’s right. Just like the medieval pilgrims, I hope that you will be overwhelmed by beauty, and moved to think of the glory of God! Think of it as a virtual pilgrimage of sorts, if you would like.

And, in the end, may we find Christ together!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

Leave a Reply