Our First Christmas Tree, by Martin Noland

Dedicated to my great-great-great-grandparents Heinrich Ludwig Hoelter and Maria Elsabein Bohning

Did you know that the use of Christmas trees in American churches was an innovation of the Rev. Heinrich Christian Schwan (1819-1905), pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, a member of the Missouri Synod (then known as Die Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio, und andern Staaten)? Schwan later became the third president of the Missouri Synod (1878-99).

The story is told well by a 1956 television program, “Our First Christmas Tree,” now available on the Internet here:

As you make your preparations for Christmas, have your family sit down by the computer monitor and watch this black and white TV program. It takes about 25 minutes and is perfectly suited for children.

The TV program is historically accurate, except for a few minor details and one competing claim for being the very first Christmas tree in a church in North America. The conflict that Pastor Schwan and his members endured was real and the drama in the TV program catches the real spirit of it. When you watch the program, you will realize that Lutherans have not always had a comfortable existence in the United States of America.

Ludwig Feuerbringer adds some more details to the historic event: Schwan was the first one to introduce the Christmas tree in church and this took place in the fifties in Cleveland. It caused a real sensation in the city. To some extent it became the talk of the town. In those days of very pronounced Reformed, unliturgical ideas, it was considered almost a sacrilege that a special day aside from the Puritan Sabbath should be observed in church, and above all things, that the sanctuary should be ‘desecrated’ by the introduction of a Christmas tree, decorated, undoubtedly, in the usual way. Schwan even had constructed the story of Bethlehem in little figures under the Christmas tree, and that especially was regarded as an abomination. Even in factories members of Schwan’s church were accosted, and to some the intimation was given that they could hardly continue in their factory employment if they were in harmony with such execrable practices. (Ludwig Feuerbringer, Eighty Eventful Years [St Louis: CPH, 1944], 248-240).

In 1851, at the time of its innovation, Zion Lutheran Church was situated where Cleveland Public Hall is located today. A historical marker is present at the corner of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street in Cleveland commemorating the event. Every December a brief commemorative ceremony is held at Pastor Schwan’s grave at Lakeview Cemetery in the Cleveland area (for this year’s service at Lakeview, see here). More information about Zion Lutheran Church and its history can be found here.

Fourteen essays and sermons of Pastor Schwan are available in English, translated by our current president, the Rev. Matthew Harrison and available in the volume At Home in the House of My Fathers available here.

On a personal note, my great-great-great grandparents (named in the dedication above) were members of Zion Lutheran Church in 1851, so this is part of my own family history.

I wish to acknowledge, with a deep measure of gratitude, the Rev. Harold Weber, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Walsh, Illinois. Pastor Weber and I have been friends for a decade now. He found the online video program “Our First Christmas Tree,” and some other details about the event that I am sharing with you today.

A very blessed Christmas to you all!


Our First Christmas Tree, by Martin Noland — 16 Comments

  1. “Did you know that the use of Christmas trees in American churches was an innovation of the Rev. Heinrich Christian Schwan”

    Was this only an innovation in American churches because it was a tradition brought over from Germany ?

    I know the Catholic/Lutheran/Anglican people have always celebrated the holidays, unlike many anabaptist, puritan, and reformed groups. Greens and garlands being part of the sanctuary decoration was my understanding. The tree I understood to be Germanic roots. I had always assumed the tree was part of Lutheran church ornamentation for a long time.

  2. The Crossroads 1956 video is not a good way to learn the historical facts about Rev. Heinrich Christian Schwan and the first Christmas tree in an American church, Zion Lutheran Church, Cleveland, Ohio, for a number of reasons:

    1. The Crossroads Board of Advisors consisted of Captain Maurice M. Witherspoon, Presbyterian Minister, Vice-President of the Military Chaplains Association; Father George B. Ford, Corpus Christi [Roman] Catholic Church, New York City, Vice-President Church Peace Union of the Carnegie Foundation; and Dr. William F. Rosenblum, Rabbi of Temple Israel, New York City, Former President of the Synagogue Council of America.
    2. All mention of Rev. Schwan and Zion Lutheran Church, Cleveland, being Lutheran was removed from the video.
    3. The video’s exterior shot of the church does not appear Lutheran.
    4. The video’s interior scenes at the church do not appear Lutheran.
    5. When seeing the tree set up in Zion Lutheran Church for the first time in 1851, after praying for the tree, the children in the video spontaneously (in harmony) sing “Jingle Bells,” which originally had a slightly different melody and was sung at Thanksgiving, not Christmas, and more importantly was not published until 1857 in Boston!
    6. The video showing Rev. Schwan’s older brother coming to defend him is contradicted by the fact that Heinrich Schwan was the oldest son of a German Lutheran pastor (and a nephew of F.C.D. Wyneken). And there is no record of Schwan’s brother, allegedly a pastor who leaves his own Christmas service in Canada to an assistant, visiting Heinrich at Christmas, 1851.
    7. The tree was actually brought in on Christmas Eve by Schwan, set up with the help of his wife, and then seen by the Zion congregation for the first time. It was not before the service but afterwards that some, but not all, objected.

    One would be better off reading about the first Christmas tree in Zion Lutheran Church, Cleveland, from Zion Lutheran Church’s own website, The History of Zion’s Christmas Tree, or read more about Rev. Schwan from Everette Meier’s “The Life and Work of Henry C. Schwan as Pastor and Missionary,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 24 (October 1961):132-39; 24 (January 1952):145-72; 25 (July 1952):72-85; 25 (October 1952):97-121. Incidentally, Zion Lutheran Church was founded in 1843, joined the Missouri Synod a year after the first Christmas tree, and invited and hosted the 1853 meeting of the Missouri Synod.

    Hey, Helen, is your “Cleveland’s First Christmas Tree” available on the internet?

  3. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    We can always count on “Carl Vehse” to bring in the correct historical details and sources, and I appreciate his writings here for that reason.

    You can always argue with the historical details in a dramatic presentation of a historic event. Some things have to be “invented,” for example, dialogue, because there are many details that we simply don’t know.

    I agree with “Carl” that Everette Meier’s articles in CHIQ are the most accurate historically, and should be used as the definitive source for historic details.

    What I like about the dramatic presentation in the film I linked is that it depicts the struggle of a Lutheran pastor to be faithful to his religious tradition, how that affects his family, how he is not always certain himself what to do, and how things finally turn out okay in the end.

    I have offered this video as encouragement to my fellow pastors, teachers, and deaconesses who struggle to be faithful in their ministry, who reap conflict or criticisms from their spouse or family or parishioners, who are not certain that they are doing the right thing because of that conflict; and who, especially during Christmas time, feel isolated because they are not spending the holidays with their family and old friends.

    Laymen, you just don’t understand this aspect of the ministry; unless you grew up in a parsonage or teacherage and your parents shared with you their struggles and burdens.

    To “bitznbitez”: The Christmas tree has its origins in the guild halls of northern Europe in the 15th century. The Protestants adopted it for use in the home. I have seen photos of Bavarian Lutheran churches with garlands and trees inside the church, from the later 19th century. Apparently the use of trees inside the sanctuary did not become common in North America until the early 20th century (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree ).

    To “Carl”, responding to your points: 1) I don’t think that the Board of Advisors intentionally wanted to distort historical details; they may not have known about CHI; 2) I too was disappointed that “Lutheran” was omitted; 3 & 4) our first sanctuary in 1841, here in Evansville, was a very plain clapboard structure, built like a town hall, except for the steeple; there is no evidence of stained glass or any other Lutheran ornaments in that building, except for the cross on the altar–the immigrants were too poor to afford anything else; 5) you are right about “Jingle Bells”; 6) the figure of Henry’s older brother is a fiction designed to end the story; I would guess that the conflict in Cleveland dragged on for a long time, and finally was forgotten–like most congregational conflicts, but you can’t make a dramatic presentation out of that; 7) your details here are correct.

    Dr. Feurbringer observes that the conflict was between the congregation and the community of Cleveland, not primarily with the congregation, as the film suggests.

    A little more history explains this. That part of Ohio was known as the “Western Reserve,” the northeast quadrant of Ohio, along the shore of Lake Erie. The Western Reserve was property that was owned by the State of Connecticut, not part of the federal Northwest Territories. It was thus early and heavily settled by Yankee Congregationalists and Presbyterians from Connecticut primarily, but also from other parts of Yankee New England. These were the strict Calvinist Puritans that were depicted, for example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

    When Germans started settling in Cleveland, there was significant conflict between them and the Puritan Yankees who had settled there first. You would hardly think Cleveland to be a center of ethnic conflict today, but it was back in those days. The German pastors were in the thick of it, because they were public figures. Just like Black pastors were in the thick of things in the Civil Rights movement, because they were public figures.

    Blessings to all on your Advent observances!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  4. @Carl Vehse #2
    Hey, Helen, is your “Cleveland’s First Christmas Tree” available on the internet?

    It was on the UT library school personal pages for about 7 years and then taken down by the school. We were among the first to do such pages at UT and programs have improved. [I don’t suppose it’s a topic for the “Wayback Machine”. The overall title was “Helen’s Home Page” or something close to that.] 🙂

  5. Martin, I had once heard Pastor Weber was considering bringing his flock into the Missouri Synod. Is that still the case?

  6. Another point: the video gives the name of Heinrich’s wife as “Rachel Schwan.” Her maiden name was Emma Matilda Edmunde Blume; they had married two years earlier while in Brazil. But I won’t complain about Don Taylor, playing Heinrich Schwan, drifting back and forth between German and Irish accents. And no one adds Lutheran authenticity to a dramatic scene like Percy Helton. 😉

    At least the reporter’s misrepresenting Zion’s Christmas tree in order to sensationalize a newspaper story with the headline – “The Road to Paganism! Zion Church worships a tree” – is believable, given the abyss of today’s journalism standards. The name of the newspaper is only partially seen (“Cleveland A… and Lake Intelligencer”). A search did not find any Cleveland newspapers in the mid-19th century with a name that matched. Since there were quotes in the Zion Lutheran Church article from newspapers of that time reporting the Christmas tree, finding those newspaper articles would be helpful. There was a German language newspaper in Cleveland, Wächter am Erie, but it didn’t begin publication until August 9, 1852.

    Here’s some other comments about the video I call, “The Zion Little Rascals Save the Christmas Tree.” 😉

    1) I don’t think that the Board of Advisors intentionally wanted to distort historical details; they may not have known about CHI

    One wonders then where the Presbyterian, Romanist, and Jewish advisors got the information they used for this Christmas-related video. I doubt it came from their respective seminaries or rabbinical school. The CHI articles about Schwan were published in 1952.

    But I’ll give you a guess on the papish source for the fairy tale that “John Schwan” told Zion congregants in the video:

    “With my own eyes I’ve seen the story …. written into the sacred books of a Sicilian monastery.. the story has been handed down through the ages… kept alive for perhaps just such a night as this…. the holy night when our Lord was born… all creatures came to worship in Bethlehem… but none came so far as the least among them, a small cedar… the stars took pity on it… and a bright Christmas star lit on the top of the cedar.. the child in the manger saw the cedar and blessed it with a smile.”

    6) the figure of Henry’s older brother is a fiction designed to end the story; I would guess that the conflict in Cleveland dragged on for a long time, and finally was forgotten–like most congregational conflicts, but you can’t make a dramatic presentation out of that;

    According to the Zion Lutheran Church webpage, a year later, 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!” (I suppose one could search old newspaper records on whether the rate of fires around Christmas time dramatically increased after 1852, until electric Christmas lights became popular in the 1920s.)

  7. Dear Carl,

    Thanks for more details. Here is something from last year’s “Plain Dealer,” one of the Cleveland city newspapers:

    The Plain Dealer has reported that the first Christmas tree in an American church was erected in 1851 in Cleveland by the Rev. Heinrich C. Schwan, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. Covered with ribbons, tinsel, nuts and cookies, it was similar to the trees he remembered from his home in Horneburg, near Hanover, Germany.

    However, some of Schwan’s parishioner objected to the “pagan” symbol.

    The editor of the Cleveland Leader fumed in his column that Schwan’s Christmas tree was “a nonsensical, asinine, moronic absurdity, besides being silly.” And he encouraged his readers to boycott businesses owned by members of the Zion church.

    But by 1852, others picked up the practice.

    And The Plain Dealer turned things around that year by reporting on the tree’s Christian background, commented Robert E. Ward, a Cleveland lawyer and German history scholar.

    Puritan leaders in 17th century Massachusetts actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas for several years because they didn’t like the boisterous celebration of what they saw as a minor holiday.

    And in Connecticult-influenced Northeast Ohio, Christmas Day was often a work and school day like any other until about the time of the Civil War.

    For the full article online, see:

    @Pastor David Juhl #5

    Pastor Juhl, I have not heard that report about Pastor Weber’s church and I don’t know what that congregation intends to do, if anything.

    There are a lot of rumours floating around about conservative congregations in the ELCA; often rumours started by well-meaning people; sometimes not. Online is not the place to discuss it, in any event.

    Each congregation of the ELCA that is conservative has to look at their individual situation from a legal standpoint, vis a vis, the ELCA. It is complicated, depending on their legal history. I think about 680 ELCA congregations have left since its formation, most of those since the pro-gay resolutions were passed in 2009.

    The “unofficial” website documenting that exodus is here: http://davidbarnhart.blogspot.com/

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  8. In a December 23, 2003, post on the Wittenberg-List, Robert Englund, Sunderland, England, stated: “Although Pastor Schwan was not the very first person to decorate a Christmas tree in North America–one being noted in history at Fort Dearborn as early as 1804–he was the first to introduce one into a church.” He gave as a reference a December 19, 1989, Farmland News article “A Christmas Tree? In a CHURCH?,” by Del Gasche.

    On the Wittenberg-List, in his January 24, 1997, post, “RE: Christmas Tree,” Marvin A. Huggins of CHI noted that the Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly July 1952 issue (Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 76-80) discussed Schwan and the Christmas tree. Huggins also states:

    “It also seems that Schwan was not the first Lutheran pastor to put a Christmas tree in his church. Indications are that Rev. John Muehlhaeuser, one of the founders of the Wisconsin Synod, introduced the tree in his church in Rochester, New York, in 1840. An article in a Rochester newspaper called it a revival of ‘one of the beautiful customs of their fatherland.’ A brief item on this appears _CHIQ_ 17 (no. 1, April 1944): 4-6

    But a Lakewood [Ohio] Observer, Dec 13, 2011, article, America’s “First” Christmas Tree, by Ziggy Rein, states:

    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 [the founder of the Wisconsin Synod] 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.

  9. However, in his article, “Muehlhaeuser, Founding Father of the Wisconsin Synod,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary President, the Rev. Armin W. Schuetze, notes (p. 2):

    “His concern for careful gospel preaching and teaching appears from the account in 1840 of the first Christmas tree and children’s service in the Rochester Journal:

    “Around the tree were seated little children, perhaps forty in number, with their pastor, Mr. Muehlhaeuser, in their midst Their exercise consisted in prayer, singing appropriate hymns and a thorough catechisation of other children by Mr. Muehlhaeuser on the various points connected with the event commemorated.” [Ref: Northwestern Lutheran, Dec. 18, 1949, p. 405.]

    The thorough questioning of the children on the Christmas event, making it attractive to them through the symbolism of the Christmas tree, shows a deep gospel concern on the part of the Rochester pastor.

  10. Dear “Carl,”

    Okay, I think we revise that claim to “Schwan was one of the first to use a Christmas tree in church in North America.” Thanks for the quote from the CHI staff.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  11. Well, it may not be settled yet. The Missouri Synod has printed apocryphal stories about its founder and it’s possible WELS did, too. The references from which I’ve quoted are all secondary sources, and so far I’ve been unable to find any specific primary sources.

    1. The Cleveland newspaper articles from 1851 or 1852, which initially criticize, then supposedly later compliment, Rev. Schwan for the display of a Christmas tree in Zion Lutheran Church. A search of the Cleveland Plain Dealer Archives didn’t show any such articles. I’ve requested information from the Ohio Historical Society.

    2. The Rochester Journal reference to Rev. John Muehlhaeuser and the Christmas tree in his Rochester, NY, church (included in a Northwestern Lutheran article). A check indicates the Rochester Journal only began publication in 1923. The only listed newspapers in Rochester in 1840 were the Rochester Daily Advertiser and the Rochester Observer. So I’m checking on getting a copy of the 1949 Northwestern Lutheran article to see what it has to say. I’ll also need to check out the 1944 CHIQ article for its reference to a Rochester newspaper article, or ask Marvin Huggins via the Wittenberg-List.

    Sometime pulling on threads to see what unravels can be interesting. 😉

  12. ANNOUNCER: Now, how did this Christmas tree tradition make its way to the United States?

    SELTZ: It is said that the first Christmas tree was brought to America by Lutheran soldiers from Germany during the American Revolution. The tradition grew to the point of having Christmas trees appear even in church.

    LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for December 16, 2012
    Topic: Where Do The Traditions of Christmas Trees and Christmas Presents Come From?

  13. Dear “Carl,”

    While you are at it, why don’t you document all your sources, and put them into the form of an article for the CHI Quarterly. It doesn’t need to be long, but should absolutely be documented with citation footnotes/endnotes. Citation data from the newspapers would be considered primary source material, even if there are some contradictions.

    Settling competing claims with real sources and hard facts is one of the many purposes of CHI and its Quarterly. You can check out information about the CHI Quarterly at: http://www.lutheranhistory.org

    By the way, Dr. John C. Wohlrabe, Jr. is the new editor of the CHI Quarterly, according to material I recently received from CHI. As you may know he is also the Second VP of the LCMS. Dr. Wohlrabe was an Assistant Director at CHI many years ago, and his dissertation was in the field of American Lutheran church history, so he is the perfect man for the job.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  14. In “Muehlhaeuser’s Christmas tree” (Northwestern Lutheran, Dec. 18, 1949, pp. 404-405), the author, identified as “P.B.”, wrote:

    So we read in the Rochester, New York, Journal of that year [1840]. The matter-of-fact account reads like this:

    “In front of the pulpit stood an evergreen tree ten to twelve feet in height, brilliantly illuminated and adored with a great variety of toys, sweetmeats, etc., suspended from the branches. A wreath across the house with three different colored lanterns, suspended from it, each bearing an appropriate motto. Around the tree were seated little children, perhaps forty in number, with their pastor, Mr. Muehlhaeuser, in their midst. Their exercise consisted in prayer, singing appropriate hymns and a thorough catechisation of other children by Mr. Muehlhaeuser on various points connected with the event commemorated. The house was excessively crowded. The exercises were all conducted in the German language, except a few explanatory remarks in English.”

    That was in 1840, one year before Prince Albert brough the Christmas tree from his German duchy of Saxe-Coburg to Buckingham Palace; seven years before August Imgard set up his recorded tree in Wooster, Ohio; and eleven years before the Reverend Henry Schwan brought it into the Zion Lutheran church of Cleveland.

    A few years later Muehlhaeuser’s Christmas tree was burning [!?!] in Milwaukee [where he accepted a call in 1848] and in all those other early Lutheran churches where God’s children appreciate that the Spirit of Christmas is the Light of the World.

    A more complete account of this 1840 Lutheran church service displaying a Christmas tree appeared in an earlier article, briefly noted in a previous post. In this article, “The First Christmas Tree in an American Church Service” (Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 17:1, April, 1944, pp. 4-5), William Gustave Polack quotes more extensively from an undated, but probably 1840, Rochester Daily Advertiser [not the Rochester Journal] newspaper article giving the account of the Lutheran service. The unidentified, and likely not Lutheran, person, begins his account:

    “Having seen a notice in the daily papers that the children connected with this church would celebrate the festival of Christmas after the German custom, I though as it was something new to me, I should embrace the opportunity of see it.”

    Polack also distinguishes the 1840 display of the Christmas tree at the Lutheran church’s service, from a later December 24, 1847, Christmas festival event displaying a Christmas tree, which was held at Minerva Hall. At the 1847 event admission was charged to raise money for “the erection of Galleries in the Church, as the great increases of the Congregation has rendered additional accomodations absolutely necessary.” A December 21, 1847, notice of the upcoming festival stated,

    “They [the German Lutheran Congregation] propose to revive one of the beautiful customs of their Fatherland by presenting a Christmas tree spendidly ornamented and laden with articles suited to the wants and tastes of visitors.”

    Polack notes that his complete account is taken from an article by Mr. Rolf King of Rochester, NY, in the February, 1944, issue of The American-German Review.

    Thanks to Cathy Zell, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Library, and Rev. Marvin Huggins, CHI, for their help in supplying information and articles.

  15. I have since found the reference to the primary source – The first (documented) account of a Christmas tree in an American church service (the Christmas Eve service of the German Protestant [Lutheran] Church in Rochester, NY, Rev. John Muehlhaeuser, pastor), an excerpt from which was given in the April, 1944, CHIQ article by W.G. Polack, originally appeared in the Rochester Daily Advertiser, Tuesday, December 29, 1840, page 2, column 4.

    Zion Lutheran Church-Cleveland will have to correct the statement in its webpage article:

    “Although Pastor Schwan, as we now know, was not the first person to decorate a Christmas tree in North America, he was the first to introduce one into a church.”

    And Cleveland will have to modify their historical marker.

    The 1956 Crossroads TV show will simply be an anachronism.

  16. Dear “Carl,”

    Thanks for all your work on this. Again, please consider submitting an article to CHIQ with all the primary source data you have found. You might also want to contact Zion Lutheran Church, so that they may correct their web-page.

    I think I know what you mean here when you say: “The 1956 Crossroads TV show will simply be an anachronism.”

    Actually the TV program is not an “anachronism,” since it does depict the events in Cleveland in the time and place that they actually happened. It is a historical error of fact, or rather an erroneous factual claim, to say that this was the first Christmas tree in a church in North America. I think that is what you meant.

    “Jingle Bells” is certainly an anachronism, since it was published in 1857.

    Blessed Christmas to you and yours!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

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