The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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November 23, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Don't put off that Christmas tree another second

Make Christmas decorations work for Advent season

Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Now that Thanksgiving weekend is here, the holiday season moves into full throttle. (Of course, Christmas decorations have been in stores since at least August.) So how do we keep Advent -- the season of waiting and preparation for Christ's coming, both historically in time at Bethlehem and at the end of time -- when tinsel, ribbons and Christmas carols dazzle the eye and ear?

How about by putting up a Christmas tree?

Yes, an evergreen tree. Yes, full of lights and shiny decorations. Yes, the one with a star on top.

But instead of overloading it right away with all the latest accoutrements -- be that M&M lights, Barbie dolls or Grinch toys -- keep it a real Christ-centered tree.

Rather than avoiding holiday trappings, make them work for you and with the theme of Advent.

Trees actually have a proud history of reflecting the lessons of the Advent season. Spruces, firs and pines, with their fragrant, evergreen boughs, remind us of the eternal life that is ours in Christ.

Then there's the Jesse tree, a tradition depicting Jesus' family tree. Both the Jesse tree and the Christmas tree are direct descendants of the Paradise tree of medieval plays.

Around the start of the last millennium, religious theater came into vogue. One of the most popular plays was celebrated around the traditional feast of Adam and Eve on Dec. 24. A stage was set up with a Paradise tree -- decorated with apples -- as the centerpiece. There was also often a Tree of Life, decorated with sweets. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was then acted out.

Eventually, the Paradise Tree worked its way into homes -- with the apples and sweets combined on one tree. Apples got a bit heavy, so German glassmakers soon devised red blown-glass balls as substitutes for apples.

In the meantime, a separate custom of building a wooden, triangular shelf, decorated with symbols from the Old Testament with a star at the top -- representing Christ -- was also becoming popular. Somewhere along the way, the Paradise tree and this pyramid combined to form the modern Jesse tree.

The Jesse tree draws its Scriptural roots from 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.

To represent the fulfillment of this prophecy, the Jesse tree carries symbols of Jesus' ancestors: an apple for Adam and Eve, a shepherd's crook for David, a ladder for Jacob, a whale for Jonah, a crown for Solomon, a colorful coat for Joseph.

(For good suggestions for traditional Jesse trees, see or

Now here's where making all the Christmas hubbub work for you happens. Use a regular Christmas tree as a Jesse tree. Use standard Christmas decorations, but choose them with an eye for their religious symbolism to Jesus' ancestry and the ongoing story of salvation. And, since there are 30 days between this Sunday (Nov. 25) and Christmas Eve, why not put one ornament or type of ornament on each day? Instead of decorating the tree all at once, make its adornment an ongoing act of preparation and anticipation -- just as Mary prepared and waited Jesus' coming.

For example, start with apples or red ornament balls to represent Adam and Eve.

Then, because it's easiest to put lights on the tree first, use strings of lights to represent the stars Abraham saw when God's promised him descendants as countless as those stars (Gn 15:5). The star-lights can also represent modern Jews, Muslims and Christians, since we are all descendants of Abraham in faith.

From there on, let your imagination set the limits. Use the Bible as a guide and you'll find all sorts of ideas for ornamental symbols.

Do you like fish? Well, there's the story of Jonah (Jon 1-2) -- which also symbolizes Christ's resurrection. And remember that some of the apostles were fishermen.

Animals? Daniel was in the lion's den (Dn 14:31 ff). And, in the same Emmanuel passage from Isaiah, the wolf and lamb, leopard and goat and even the snake are all companions. And then, of course, there's Noah's ark (Gn 6-9).

Doves and angels have obvious connections. Candy canes remind us of shepherd's crooks -- and Abraham, Jesse and David, as well as the Good Shepherd.

If you like music, remember that David played the harp and Joshua conquered Jericho with the blowing of a horn (Jos. 6:5).

Those fancy decorated ropes of garland can be an opportunity to recall the story of Rahab, one of Jesus' female ancestors (Jos. 2:1-18). And crystal beads can be used to tell of the tears shed after the Babylonian Exile (Ps 137).

Even Egyptian ornaments -- another popular piece lately -- can be used to tell the story of Moses and the Exodus.

Try a new type or ornament or decoration each day, and talk about the symbolism with your family. Finally, on Christmas Eve, top the tree with a star (Mt 2:9-10) -- representing Christ, our light, or the star at Bethlehem. Or, if you prefer, place an angel to represent the heavenly host who announced "good news of great joy" tidings to all (Lk 2:8-14).

As a final touch, put a small Nativity scene beneath the tree. After all, isn't Christ both the shoot that came from the root of Jesse and the true vine from which all faith now takes its source of life?

(Sources: Trinity Communications at; Wisconsin Evangelical church at; and

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