The Nativity Fast is almost here! Though we are still reeling from getting back-to-school and welcoming Fall, the calendar won’t wait for us to catch up.
Every year when Christmas approaches, it is important for parents to think about how we’ll lead the household this year. Too often, the people around us are swept up in shopping and decorating — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but famously, Christ often gets lost in the celebration of His own birth.
If we want to keep our children focused on Christ this year, then we should start thinking now about how we’re going to keep the fast. Rather than running from party to party and gorging ourselves on rich foods and gifts (pre-celebrating Christmas to the point that the feast itself loses it luster and becomes the last day before the great returning of gifts at shopping mall sales), let’s follow the healthier rhythm of the Church: let’s fast for forty days, slowly and peacefully preparing prayerful hearts to receive Christ on the feast of His Nativity.
Long before I was Orthodox, I grew up with the Scandinavian tradition of the Advent Calendar: every day we counted down to Christmas and ate a piece of chocolate. It really did make the countdown to Christmas exciting, and kept us focused on the idea that Santa Claus would soon be here with gifts for all the good little girls and boys, and of course on the promise of more chocolate to come!
As a parent, I’ve given more thought to how we engender this same countdown excitement, without breaking the spirit of the fast, and how to move the focus from gifts and treats back to Christ, where it belongs.
I really like the idea of the ‘Jesse Tree’ which counts down to the Nativity with a series of Old Testament prophecies; we prepare our own hearts by tracing the ways that God prepared His people to receive Christ. It’s beautiful.
Without an Orthodox Jesse Tree, most of us adapt Western models — which is tricky, and not just because our Advent is 40 days long while theirs is only 25. Our Orthodox Old Testament includes books that the West has rejected and forgotten, and they don’t appear in a Western Jesse Tree, and our Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures is fuller: we find Christ in these stories, in ways that others may miss.
There are free Orthodox Jesse Tree lists on the internet, but they tend to be lists of readings, requiring the parents to look them up and then try to explain these verses to our children. Many of these prophecy verses are hard to understand and harder to explain.
Over the years, I wrote a Jesse Tree for my children and for my friends, and it has now become an actual book: Welcoming the Christ-Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent. It’s a collection of forty Bible Story readings, one for each day of the Nativity Lent. These short, beloved stories from Scripture are followed by a few thoughtful questions and answers to encourage family discussion, and can be used any of time of year to help bring the Holy Orthodox Faith to life in our homes. We see how Old Testament events and prophecies point the way to the birth of the Christ Child, preparing our hearts to celebrate the feast of Christmas with greater understanding and inspiration.
Jelena Jeftic created gorgeous illustrations for each story in the book, each reminiscent of our holy iconography, but warmer and sweeter. Our hope is that these illustrations become beloved by our young audience, so that their love transfers to the icons they see in church.
We’ve printed Jelena’s wonderful illustrations onto durable, toddler-safe ornaments so that your family can decorate an actual Jesse Tree, year after year. As you read each story, you’ll hang colorful ornaments matching the book’s illustrations.
Every time a guest comes into our house during the Nativity Fast, our youngest leads them over to our Jesse Tree, telling each story she’s learned along the road to Christ’s Nativity. You can use an Advent calendar, a real tree or a wooden tree, or just hang the ornaments on a simple ribbon — create something as simple or as creative as you like.
The Nativity Fast begins on November 15 on the New Calendar, and November 28 on the Old Calendar. It’s time to think about how you’ll bring this special season to life in your home, making sure that these holidays are not just about gifts and decorations and food, but truly about preparing our hearts to receive our Lord.
The book and ornament sets are available at Sebastian Press and at the Ancient Faith Store.
Want to order a wooden tree custom made to work with these ornaments? Check out my post from last Nativity Lent, and order a tree from the ZMom today!
If you’re thinking about making something yourself, here’s the board I made, and some inspiration for other ways to do it!