I’m a Catholic school veteran—16 years all told. I sent my three oldest children to the same parochial grade school I attended. Catholic schools have Religion class every day along with Math, English, and Social Studies, and that’s great—but what’s even better are the little ways in which faith is part of EVERY class, the way that it can be talked about or brought to life at any moment. Even more than actual religious education, this to me is the gift and the value of attending a Catholic school.
At this holy time of year—and by “time of year” I mean Advent, not Christmas—my thoughts always turn to early December mornings at St. Joseph School. The whole school went to Mass every morning—our sanctuary revealed by the opening of a curtain, our pews a cafeteria full of folding chairs. And afterwards we filed out—all 200 of us—and gathered in the front hall of the school.
I remember mornings as darker in those days. Certainly they were colder, and with wall radiators providing the only heat we shivered in our red cardigans. But what happened on those Advent mornings was a source of light and warmth to me.
There was—still is—a little elevated area next to the office, full of rocks (that we were forbidden to play with and always did), with a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the middle. During the Advent season, Mary was joined by a tree, a cedar tree I believe, that served as a Jesse Tree during Advent and, briefly, as a Christmas tree right before the winter break.
Jesse was King David’s father, and Jesus was descended (by adoption) from David’s line. The Jesse Tree custom involves the hanging of a different ornament on the tree each day, and the reading of a Bible verse. The ornaments and verses tell the story of Jesus’ ancestors and foreshadow the coming Messiah. The way I remember it, the first one every year was a stump, and the verse was something like, “A new root springs from the stump of Jesse.”
One of the big girls (in my memory they are adults, even though now I realize they were just little girls, eighth graders) would hold up the felt ornaments for all of us to see as the verse was read. Then Sister Janice (our principal) would start one of the Advent songs—The King of Glory, On Jordan’s Bank, or O Come O Come Emmanuel. We all knew them by heart. And we’d walk slowly back to our classrooms, singing as we went.
I don’t know how everyone else felt about it, but to me it was magical. I looked forward to it every year. So when my three big kids were little, we cut out and colored our own Jesse Tree ornaments. For many years, we hung an ornament on my favorite house plant each evening before supper. We lost the ornaments when our house burned down, but Lorelei and William willingly colored a new set so that we could continue the tradition for years to come.