Friday, 2 December 2016

Storytelling Advent

A belated happy new year, everybody!  The church year began last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, which took me by surprise even though I knew it was coming, because there was still so much of November to go.

Advent is such a rich time for writers, so full of those broad themes we love to explore: waiting and longing, preparation and patience, journeying, wondering, mystery and light.  It has a flavour all its own, too often (even within the safe haven of church) swamped by premature Christmas celebrations.

My favourite thing about Advent is that it’s story time.  Traditionally, it’s the moment to place the birth of Jesus within the bigger narrative: to tell the story of everything in the history of the world that led up to that moment in a manger, and to wonder at our place in God’s ongoing salvation plan.

That’s why I chose the Jesse Tree as a theme for my first book of Bible stories.  The tradition of Jesse trees dates back to a time when most people were illiterate, and depictions of stories in wall paintings and stained glass windows were their Bibles.  Inspired by the passage in Isaiah 11 about a tree growing from the root of Jesse, Jesse trees were a sort of family tree for Jesus, with branches depicting His ancestors and what they were remembered for - David, for example, might have been painted with his lyre and sling and a sheep.  Gradually, these trees stretched further back in time to include characters all the way back to Adam, and so told the entire Gospel story - creation, fall and incarnation - in a way that made these key people and their stories familiar even to medieval labourers who couldn’t read.

Traditional storytelling is another art form which makes texts available to those who can’t read, so it was inspiring to attempt to tell twenty-five Jesse Tree tales out loud, passing them on to a generation for whom - though genuine illiteracy is thankfully much rarer - real biblical literacy is fast becoming a thing from the history books.

We still get out our Jesse tree every Advent, and so far we’ve hung two pictures on it - a globe for the story of creation, and an apple for Adam and Eve.  Tomorrow, a rainbow will remind us of God’s promise to Noah to restore the broken world instead of destroying it.  Even though I know the symbols by heart now, our annual rediscovery of the bigger picture is still a wonder-filled experience.

So, what are your Advent traditions? Do they inspire you to write? Want to join me in a Jesse tree this year?

Amy Robinson is a writer, performance storyteller and ventriloquist, and the children’s worker in her benefice.  She has written three books about puppetry and storytelling, published by Kevin Mayhew, and provides scripts and materials for GenR8, a Cambridgeshire charity running Christian assemblies and events in schools.  In her spare time, she writes poetry and makes attempts at novels.  She lives in a rectory in Suffolk with the rector, two children and lots of puppets. You can also find her on her web page or her new blog.

Tales from the Jesse Tree is published by Kevin Mayhew and can be found at


  1. Thank you Amy - never knew what a Jesse tree was! But this year I found something which may become a tradition for me. I was reading a novel where a character was pondering about the two words - Advent and Adventure. I had never connected them before but now I feel I am on an Advent Adventure. It's not very exciting so far but some glimmers of hope keep me going and believing it is an adventure. Love from Shirley