Around that time, religious theater was very popular. All sorts of dramas were staged around events related to the birth of Christ — such as the adoration of the Magi or the Annunciation. One of the most popular plays took place on what was then the feast of Adam and Eve: Dec. 24.
The story of the Garden of Eden was acted out in this play, complete with a Paradise tree — decorated with apples — and a Tree of Life, often adorned with sweets.
Around this same time, the custom of building a wooden, triangular shelf, decorated with symbols from the Old Testament with a star at the top — representing Christ — was also in vogue. Somewhere along the way, the Adam and Eve trees and the wooden pyramids got combined into something we now call the Jesse tree.
The Jesse tree draws its scriptural roots from the words of the prophet Isaiah — “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (11:1) — and his prediction of the coming of Emmanuel, “God with us.” We will hear this reading on Nov. 29, the Tuesday of the first week of Advent.
The oldest surviving Jesse trees exist in church buildings. One is found in a stained glass window at the Cathedral of Chartres in France and dates to the middle of the 12th century. Other representations can be found in wall carvings and illuminated manuscripts from across Europe.
These architectural Jesse trees start on the bottom with a representation of Jesse, the father of King David, and end at the top with Jesus; sometimes as the infant Jesus held in Mary’s arms and sometimes as the adult Jesus, crowned in glory. Arrayed between Jesse — who is usually shown as asleep with a vine or tree growing out of his side — and Jesus are representations of the generations between the two men. Think of them as elaborate versions of the paper family trees we penciled in at school.
Now the genealogy of Jesus is usually linked to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which both list Jesus’ family line either going back to Adam (Lk 3: 23-38) or to Abraham (Mt 1:1-17). Some Jesse trees actually have images to represent each of the 28 generations of Matthew or the 43 of Luke. Many are somewhat generic with kings crowned and prophets carrying scrolls.
Modern Jesse trees are often real trees and not windows or tapestries or wall carvings. They usually take one of two forms:
- The generations leading to Jesus. Here the images represent Jesus’ ancestors. So there would be a ladder for Jacob and a crown for Solomon and a harp for David.
- The generations of creation. These trees carry images of key events in salvation history. These could include an ark for Noah, a fish for Jonah, apples for Adam and Eve and stars and moon for the act of the Creation.
Today, there are many ways to decorate a Jesse tree. By the time you’re done, it might look a lot like a Christmas tree — and have a lot more religious symbolism.
For example, using strings of lights on a Jesse tree can represent the stars Abraham saw when God promised him descendants as countless as the stars (Gn 15:5). From there, decorations like doves and angels have obvious connections. Candy canes remind us of shepherd’s crooks: Abel, Abraham, Moses, Jesse and David were all shepherds. And musical decorations can remind us of the psalms of David, the Song of Solomon and the songs of the Jewish people when they returned from exile in Babylon.
Even those fancy decorated ropes of garland can be an opportunity to recall the story of Rahab, one of Jesus’ female ancestors, who helped with the fall of Jericho (Jos 2:1-18). And crystal beads can tell of the tears shed during that same Babylonian Exile (Ps 137).
A Jesse tree can be decorated all at once or by placing new ornaments or decorations each day of Advent as your family talks about religious symbolism.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, top the tree with a star (Mt 2:9-10) representing Christ, our light, or the star at Bethlehem. If you prefer, you can place an angel there to represent the heavenly host who announced “good news of great joy” to all (Lk 2:8-14).
As a final touch, you might place a Nativity scene under the tree. After all, isn’t Christ both the shoot from the root of Jesse and the true vine from which all faith now takes its source of life?
Sources: fisheaters.com; the EWTN library at ewtn.com; Advent readings at usccb.org; catholicculture.org; domestic-church.com.