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!

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