America's "First" Christmas Tree

Pastor  Heinrich (Henry) Christian Schwan made history when he celebrated his first Christmas in Cleveland by placing a candlelit tree in his church’s sanctuary, a custom that was popular in Germany, his native country, and helped spread the tradition across America.

Early on Christmas Eve 1851, the Rev. Schwan, newly installed pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland, went into the forest near his parsonage and chopped down a small beautifully-shaped evergreen. After taking it into his church and placing it in a prominent spot in the chancel, he and his wife, Emma, spent the afternoon trimming the tree with cookies, colored ribbons, fancy nuts and candles. A silver star that Schwan had brought with him from his boyhood home in Hanover, Germany, topping off the tree, was a reminder of his happy boyhood Christmases.

He wanted to share this same happiness with members of his congregation, most of whom were also German-born and thus likely to have seen a Christmas tree in their past. The custom hadn't caught on yet in America.

Most of the members of his congregation were pleasantly surprised, and wonderful Christmas memories of the Old Country were enkindled by the sight of the beautifully decorated and lighted tree. Others, however, were offended by the idea of having a Tannenbaum in church.  

Within a day or two, Schwan's Christmas tree was the talk of the town, and the talk was not good. A prominent local newspaper called it “a nonsensical, asinine, moronic absurdity, besides being silly.” It editorialized against “these Lutherans . . . worshipping a tree . . . groveling before a shrub.” Worse, it recommended that the good Christian citizens of Cleveland ostracize, shun and refuse to do business with anyone “who tolerates such heathenish, idolatrous practices in his church.”

Even members of the congregation thought it was sacrilege and idolatry to have such a tree in the church. During the following year, Schwan carefully researched the issue of Christmas trees. He ultimately concluded that such trees were not a sacrilege but rather a solid Christian custom — a custom in which Christians could express their joy at the birth of the Christ Child.

Finding it hard to believe that the use of the Christmas tree was really unknown to the people of Cleveland, Pastor Schwan began to make inquiries, by personal contacts as well as by correspondence. He learned that the lighting of the Christmas tree had been a custom in the home of the Imgaard family in Wooster, Ohio, since 1847. Fortified with this information, Pastor Schwan convinced the leaders of the community and his congregation that his Christmas tree was not so wicked as it had been made out to be.

On Christmas Eve 1852, Schwan's church again displayed a blazing Christmas tree. But this time it was not the only one in Cleveland. In fact, decorated trees appeared in homes all over town, and within five years Christmas trees were going up in homes and churches all across the country!

The Rev. J. H. Meyer, D. D., pastor at the former St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lakewood, wrote in 1960:

“[T]he claim has been made that Pastor Schwan was the first to introduce the use of the Christmas tree in a church. That claim, however, is not quite correct. There is evidence that the Rev. John Muehlhaeuser of Rochester, New York, used the Christmas tree in his church as early as 1840. There, however, it was chiefly a money-making scheme, admis­sion being charged to raise money for the church. Therefore, although Pastor Schwan was not the first to introduce the Christmas tree into the church, as was believed for a time, we may still credit him with the honor of lifting the custom to a worthy plane and bringing out its beautiful significance.”

Although Pastor Schwan was not the first person to decorate a Christmas tree in North America, he was the first to introduce one into a church. And he was almost singlehandedly responsible for this custom gaining widespread acceptance and popularity in the United States.

The location of Zion Lutheran Church has changed since the 1850s, but on its original spot, the corner of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street, stands a historical marker that states:

“On this site stood the first Christmas tree in America publicly lighted and displayed in a church Christmas ceremony. [Here] stood the original Zion Lutheran Church, where in 1851, on Christmas Eve, Pastor Henry Schwan lighted the first Christmas tree in Cleveland. The tradition he brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America. The present site of Zion Lutheran Church is at 2062 East 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio.”

On December 5th, as every year, Hope Lutheran Church, Cleveland Heights, celebrated and commemorated the accomplishments of the Rev. Schwan by holding a graveside tree-trimming ceremony at his grave in Lake View Cemetery.

Ziggy Rein

I'm a retired printer. Immediately prior to my reitrement I worked for Bowne of Cleveland as a proofreader.

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Volume 7, Issue 25, Posted 11:52 PM, 12.13.2011