Advent offers many wonderful ways for preschoolers to prepare for the birth of Jesus.
Intergenerational Advent retreat: The Jesse Tree*
The Jesse Tree is a tradition that introduces Jesus’ ancestors. Stories from the Old Testament are told, and participants create symbols to hang on Jesus’ ‘family tree.’ As this is an involved project, it works best at a gathering that lasts several hours and includes numerous adults.
One large tree can be created by the group and brought into the church as part of the Advent decorations, or individual families can make a tree to take home.
You will need:
- A Bible written for very young children (such as the Eager Reader Bible Story Book, Catholic Edition): find adults willing to read stories from this bible during the session. Suggested stories are Creation, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Samuel, David, Elijah, Daniel, Jonah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary.
- Materials for creating the symbols: colored felt, tissue paper, craft sticks, pipe cleaners, self-hardening clay, colored tag board, glitter, paper punch, glue, markers, scissors, paper to protect work surfaces, ample table space, etc.
- Tree or trees: these can be branches off a deciduous tree, a small, artificial Christmas tree, an evergreen wreath, or an outline of a pine tree painted onto sturdy cardboard (symbols must be pinned on).
Begin with a short explanation of the Jesse Tree
Making a Jesse Tree helps us understand that many people lived before Jesus was born. They waited for him, just as we wait for his birthday now. These people were good, holy people and have interesting stories! We will read a story and think of a symbol to make, something that will remind of the person. Then we will hang that symbol on the tree, and read another story.
*The Jesse Tree is named for Jesse, the father of King David.
Sunday school classroom activities
Adaptation of the Jesse Tree for classroom use
Create simple symbols on paper, making copies for each child. Over the course of Advent days, tell the stories and have children decorate the appropriate symbols. Have children put the symbols on the tree as they are finished. Slowly the Jesse Tree will be decorated—a symbol in itself of the days of Advent waiting.
Jesse Tree symbol patterns (PDF)
For young children, play is the most effective form of learning. A simple but meaningful way of helping them prepare for Christmas is to provide props for them to pretend the story of the Nativity. You will need:
- Items to create clothing: bath towels, strips of fabric, adult-sized t-shirts (without writing on them), dish towels, small blankets.
- At least one baby doll
- Other costume props: wings, crowns
- A box for a manger
- Other possibilities: a large cardboard packing box for the stable, stuffed animals for sheep, a yellow tag board star and a wagon for a donkey.
Over the course of the Advent days, have children illustrate the Christmas story. Below is the text for a four-page book. Copy the text onto four papers and make enough copies for each child. In class, read the nativity story, then provide each child with a page. Allow time for each child to complete an illustration (anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes!). Add pages as time permits. You may have to reread the nativity story each time the children are about to draw. When the books are complete, have children create covers with stiff paper. Fasten the pages together and have children gift wrap their books to take home and give to someone they love.
- Page 1: Long ago, a young woman named Mary was traveling to Bethlehem with her husband, Joseph. Mary was going to have a baby very soon. This baby was a very special child—he was Jesus, God’s son!
- Page 2: Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. There were so many people in Bethlehem that there was no place for them to stay. They had to sleep in a barn! It was here that Baby Jesus was born.
- Page 3: God sent angels to celebrate Jesus’ birth. The angels visited shepherds and their sheep. The angels sang and told the shepherds about the new baby. The shepherds went to see the baby and Mary and Joseph.
- Page 4: There were other visitors too. Very wise men traveled a long way to meet Jesus. Mary held little Jesus. She loved him very much!
A saint for many occasions: St. Nicholas
The feast of St. Nicholas comes early in Advent, December 6. Nicholas is a 4th-century saint who was persecuted for his Christianity, brought knowledge of Christ to many, and worked for justice. His propensity for gift giving in secret led, over many centuries, to his transformation to Santa Claus. But Nicholas offers children and adults many ways of preparing for Christmas. For ideas too numerous to count, see www.stnicholascenter.org. There you will find ideas for celebrations in schools and churches, festivals, worship, plays, music, recipes, crafts, etc. With these resources, you can plan anything from a half-hour activity to a weekend family retreat!
Check out Anne's website at www.anneneuberger.com.