The First Church Christmas Tree in America

Henry Schwan’s Christmas Tree

by Kevin D. Vogts, director of Church Relations at Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon

Reprinted with permission from the December 1998 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

On Christmas Eve morning 1851, young Heinrich Christian Schwan,
newly installed pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland, strode out
into the forest near his parsonage and chopped down a small,
beautifully shaped evergreen.

It may have been a fir, it may have been a Scotch pine, it may have
been a Norway spruce; no one knows anymore. But it doesn’t matter. What
does matter is that the 32-year-old preacher lovingly carried the tree
into his church, where it met with his wife, Emma’s, approval.

The couple spent the afternoon festooning the tree with cookies,
colored ribbons, fancy nuts and candles. The crowning touch would be
the cherished silver star that Schwan had brought with him from his
boyhood home in Hannover, Germany. The star was a powerful reminder to
him of how happy his Christmases had been as a child.

He wanted to share this same happiness with his congregation, most
of whom were also German-born and thus likely to have seen a Christmas
tree in their pasts. The custom hadn’t caught on yet in America. In
fact, to Schwan’s knowledge, this was the first time that such a tree
had appeared within a church this side of the Atlantic.

Once the tree was fully trimmed, Schwan carefully placed it in a
prominent spot in the chancel. All that remained now was to light the
candles bedecking its boughs. Standing back, gazing admiringly at their
work, Heinrich and Emma could hardly help thinking, “Won’t the
congregation be surprised tonight!”

The people were surprised all right.

Most were delighted. For them, seeing their handsome young pastor
reading the Christmas story beside his bright, blazing tree enkindled
wonderful Christmastime memories from the Old Country.

For others, however–those not familiar with the idea of a Tannenbaum, especially one in church–it was not such a blessing.

“Oh, my goodness!” one lady gasped, covering her eyes. “What in the world is this supposed to mean?”

“A tree in the chancel?” roared an indignant man. “What kind of a minister are you?”

Within a day or two, Herr 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.” 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.”

This, obviously, was bad press for the struggling immigrant members
of Zion, especially those with stores and other businesses dependent on
the public’s goodwill. And all fingers of blame pointed to the same
man: the stunned, well-meaning Schwan.

To his credit, however, the young pastor, though sorely chastened,
did not cave in–at least not right away. His Christmas tree was still
in the chancel the following Sunday. But then it came down. Soon
thereafter, Emma discovered Heinrich’s beloved tree-topping silver star
in the trash.

She cleaned it up and presented it to him. “Why did you throw this away?” she asked.

“Because,” he said disconsolately, “there never will be another Christmas tree in Cleveland.”

“Nonsense!” she replied. “This year you put up the first tree, and next Christmas there will be many trees in Cleveland.”

Emma saved the star, and her prediction came true beyond her wildest dreams.

During the following year, Schwan, perhaps inspired by his stalwart
wife, 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 Christchild.

He wrote many letters and received replies assuring him that lighted
and decorated Christmas trees were de rigueur in many Christian
countries. Emboldened by this knowledge–the fact that Christmas trees
were not of pagan origin–he actively promoted their use as symbols of
the joy of Christmas.

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!

Although Pastor Schwan, as we now know, was not the first person to
decorate a Christmas tree in North America (read article titled “Who
Was Really the First?”), 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 an 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.”

Pastor Schwan would later rise to great prominence in the Missouri
Synod, serving as synodical President from 1878 to 1899. He was also
the original author of the questions, explanations and Bible prooftexts
appended to Luther’s Small Catechism. Had it ever occurred to you that
the pastor who wrote the questions in the back of your old blue
catechism was the same fellow who popularized the Christmas tree in

So, as you put up your Christmas tree this year, or admire the tree
(or trees) in your church’s chancel, remember the day when young Henry
Schwan betook himself an ax and tramped into that snowy Ohio woods.
Remember that, thanks to him, the Christmas tree in church is a unique
Missouri Synod contribution to the celebration of Christmas in America!

Contributing to this story are authors of other works relating to
H.C. Schwan and his tree: Del Gasche, “A Christmas Tree? In Church?,”
Farmland News, 1989; Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, Oxford
University Press, 1995; and Helen Jensen, “Cleveland’s First Christmas
Tree” (self-published, 1996).

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