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.
This post originally appeared on my friend Lacy’s blog. If you are looking for Christmas gifts, you should check out her handmade necklaces here.
Just beautiful! Sounds like a great school, and a really great way to observe Advent. We are doing a Jesse tree at home for the first time this year… I hope our tradition becomes as beautiful and valuable as this!
You took me back to my school days. I did my schooling from The convent of Jesus and Mary. All things we use to learn in our Moral Science class by our principal then, Sister Dorothy, I can still recall a few great lessons. My kids are also in the catholic school now, It’s run by The Bishops Society. Studying in catholic schools, life is different. Thanks for sharing.
I love this!! I have been looking for a good advent calendar or book but maybe I will just make my own felt ornaments! (I realize this may not happen this year haha).. But thanks for sharing! And I agree, sounds magical! Wish we did that in school when I was growing up!
We are not catholic, but our kids go to a small Catholic school and really enjoy the holiday traditions there.
I love advent too! Our kids go to a parochial Lutheran school. I also love that my kids not only learn about God in religion class but it’s integrated into every class! It’s such a great way to model living your faith!
I’ve been doing a Jesse tree for a few years and LOVE it! Even though I don’t have kids and it’s just me and my mom it’s still fun. I even put purple lights on it so we remember it’s advent.
Not being Catholic, I would love to know more about the ornaments and verses that were used. In a couple of the churches I have attended we have talked about Advent and even lit Advent candles but I have never heard about the ornaments.
Those are some great memories to have! I love that you were able to pass down the tradition of hanging the ornaments on the Jesse tree with your kids!
I absolutely love passing on traditions, and especially this time of year. It really makes holidays a truly special time of year.
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I love how their faith is part of every day at Catholic school. A teacher at my local public school asked about the discipline there and I told her, “They have Jesus.”
The principal of our kids’ school said something similar when public school people were talking to her about character education.
What a great memory you have! I love the idea of traditions and something like this feels very special. Thank you for sharing!
I do have a good memory–for things that happened 40 years ago anyway. 😉