Reader Keri asked about our Jesse Tree -- the "family scrapbook" as I call it -- and I want to expand a little bit on what we do.
Our Jesse Tree will soon reside on the hearth, awaiting its salt dough ornaments. This is probably one of the most "educational" Advent activities that we do. (Remember, though -- life is school, and school is life, so it's all educational .... ) I post a small sign next to the tree (just in case my children forget what I'm educating them about -- not that my kids ever forget such things ....) The sign reads, "The Jesse Tree ... Finding Jesus in the Old Testament" and that's exactly what a Jesse Tree helps us to do. It introduces us to the truth that Christianity is not a new idea, nor a religion dreamed up and perpetuated by a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors. It is the fulfillment of God's story -- our story -- from the beginning of time.
Reading the Scriptures that lay the foundation for, and point us to, Jesus brings all those seemingly disconnected Bible stories together into a meaningful fabric, a tapestry of history that makes sense to even the youngest of children. When we compare it to a family's scrapbook, it becomes a metaphor children can easily understand. The symbols we hang on our tree are "snapshots" of the history of Jesus, which is our history, too.
The kids made our Jesse Tree ornaments a few years ago, out of salt dough. (My salt dough tends to break, so we have the fun of replacing ornaments every now and then.) I keep the ornaments right under the tree, within easy reach (though you may not want to do that if you have crawling babies or toddlers) for the daily reading and ceremonial hanging (does it count as a ceremonial hanging if children fight over who gets to do it? I recommend scheduling the ceremonial hangings in a basic, "No fighting - your turn will come tomorrow," rotation.)
I began using our small, artificial Christmas tree as our Jesse tree just a few years ago. Before that, I dithered about, trying to find the best way to approach this activity. One year we did poster board and a hodgepodge of construction paper and 3-d ornaments; another year I searched in vain for the perfect tree branch to place in a pot, a la a friend's example. I was trying so hard to make it all perfect that year that I ended up abandoning the entire activity. Another year our tree was hastily thrown together on construction paper. I was pregnant with Ramona then, at a very tired age 41, and was extraordinarily pleased with myself for simply breaking out the glitter.
I was finally inspired to use our artificial tree by my friend, Johnna, who always has great craft and liturgical ideas. She began using their regular Christmas tree as a Jesse Tree, hanging Jesse ornaments throughout Advent, then taking those down an and putting up Christmas ornaments on Christmas Eve. I adapted the idea, and pulled out the old 4' tree that I'd been considering giving away. Our Jesse Tree tradition was finally settled. And, my kids were 11, 8 and 2. So. Huh. It took awhile.
And, what readings do we use? This took some time for me to figure out, too. I have to confess that for awhile, I reeeally disliked the Jesse Tree activity, because I couldn't find an easy, workable, all-in-one version of it anywhere. If one source had ornaments or other ideas I liked, it did not offer neatly corresponding readings. If I found a set of readings I liked, suddenly my ornaments no longer matched.
Harumph. Then, my English pal, The Bookworm came to the rescue, and we've settled in with a book she recommended.
The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean combines a picture/storybook with the Scripture readings we want to cover. I use both this book and a Bible to completely cover it all.
An important point to remember about the Jesse Tree -- and one that will keep you from falling into dislike of this activity -- is that it doesn't have to be done perfectly on schedule or legalistically. So what if you miss a day of readings here or there -- it's okay! You can catch up when you have time.
What you're aiming for -- the truly important thing -- is increased familiarity with Scripture, and a growing understanding that Jesus is present in the Old Testament.
In the same way that our little math students do a lot of the same addition and multiplication problems year in and year out, students of the Jesse Tree study "the same old thing" each year,with the result being steady and continued growth and knowledge. Don't look for it to be (though it might be -- I'm not ruling it out) immediately transforming. It's an activity that grows on you, that grows on your kids, and most of all, that increases everyone's fluency with the word of God. And with the Word of God.
My final assessment: it doesn't really matter what kind of tree and ornaments you use, or which readings you choose. What matters is that you're digging into Scripture. Your ornaments might be hastily assembled, glitter-glopped and slapped on poster board, or they may be carefully fashioned in the weeks before or during Advent. Your readings might come from one source while your ornaments are nabbed from another. You might make up your own set of readings and symbols, or you might find a ready-made kit that's perfect.
But, the bottom line is that you should do what works for you and your family, for your possibly-tired-or-pregnant-or-incapacitated body, your crafty or craft-challenged self, your one child or your many.
What matters most is focusing on Jesus as the celebration of His birth approaches.
Don't do what I did, and let the quest for "the perfect Jesse Tree" put a damper on what can be a great way to spend time with God's word. Relax and have fun with it, and keep that big picture -- the growth and knowledge that will come over several years of doing it -- in mind.