The best Christmas traditions are those that add joy without adding much to the to-do list.
I have wonderful memories of Christmas growing up — baking, putting up the tree, caroling in our neighborhood, attending candlelight services. Christmas was a season of wonder graced by lights and family, traditions, songs and those much anticipated gifts under the tree.
But the magic of Christmas really came alive for me when my little girl was old enough to ooh and aah at the lights of our Christmas tree, when she realized that those presents were for her and there was something delightful inside of them, when she wanted me to sing her “Jingle Bells” every night at bedtime.
However, at the same time that my girl was discovering the wonder of Christmas, I was discovering just how stressful it could be. All those things that my mom had done to make Christmas special when I grew up actually took a lot of time and planning. I began to realize that Christmas can be a whole lot of work — so much work that I could feel myself losing the joy of the season to a to-do list.
Over time, I’ve determined that the family traditions I want most are those which add to the joy of Christmas while not adding much to my to-do list. For our family, one of the best traditions we have shared together is that of a Jesse Tree.
I’d never heard of a Jesse Tree until I discovered a post about it on Ann Voskamp’s website. Even then, I didn’t really understand what it was. I knew it had something to do with a tree and Bible stories and connecting those stories to the Christmas story. It wasn’t until I came across a book sitting on the Christmas shelf at the library entitled The Jesse Tree that I really began to understand what a Jesse Tree is meant to do. It was a unique way of visually remembering the history that leads to Christmas. In the preface to that book, the author, Geraldine McCaughrean, writes:
Jesse Trees were the Bible-storybooks of unlettered people. A priest could point to the figures or symbols and tell the stories of those Old Testament kings, prophets, heroines, warriors. And the tree itself served to show how the New Testament grew out of the Old Testament; how, for Christians, the birth of Jesus was not just a beginning, but a completion.
I liked that idea — tracing the stories of the Bible with my children in a way that was simple and helped us to see the hand of God in all the stories that lead to Christmas. So, I bought the book and the next year I set out to start a new tradition. I got out brown butcher paper and traced a trunk and bare branches and put it up on our front door. I searched the internet and found a couple of websites where moms with more artistic skills than I have had drawn simple circles with a picture inside to go with each story. I printed them out and had my daughter color the picture each day while I read the story. Then we put it up on our tree. It took 15 minutes, max, each day.
I love having the tree on our front door where visitors can’t help but notice it. My kids have enjoyed explaining what the tree is to visitors and showing off their artistic handiwork. But you can be as creative or as simplistic with the tree as you want. Draw one, paint one, sew one, buy a small fake tree, use a branch in a vase, buy a small tree in a pot and put it in your front porch — whatever is easiest or most interesting to you.
What started out as a Christmas experiment has turned into a much-loved tradition. Now there are two children, so I print out two sets of ornaments. And even though my 10-year-old has heard the stories for several years now, she still gets excited to color the ornaments and revisit the stories. Each year she seems to grasp more of how these stories show the love and grace of God for his flawed but cherished people.
For my family, the Jesse Tree is an opportunity to see God in each day of December, to see ourselves in the stories that we read and to realize anew that we need God’s salvation and grace just as much as Noah or David did. We remember that just as he rescued them, he came at Christmas to rescue us. And revisiting that truth every December is a gift just as lovely as any under our Christmas tree.
If you are interested in learning more about Jesse Trees here are a few resources to start with:
The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean. This is my favorite book to use with younger children (ages 4 to 10). A young boy wanders into a church where an old woodcarver is carving the ornaments for a Jesse Tree. Each day, the boy wheedles the Bible story that matches the ornament from the woodcarver. One of the beautiful things about this book is how the telling of the stories changes the heart of the grumpy woodcarver and helps him to see the beauty in the stories.
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp. A beautifully written book with gorgeous illustrations best suited to using in a family devotional time with children ages nine to adulthood. Each day there is a Scripture passage to read, Ann’s devotional to illuminate the passage, a few questions to discuss and suggested family activities. When you buy the book, you get a link for the printable ornaments that go along with each day.
The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp. A lovely book written specifically for adults and best used for an individual devotional time. It’s similar in format to the book for families except that instead of questions for discussion, there are questions with space for writing in answers. A link is also provided for the printables for this book when you purchase it.