The Schwan Christmas Tree

The year was 1843, and Heinrich Christian Schwan was a newly ordained minister. Six years later, Heinrich and his new wife, Emma Blum, moved to the United States from Horneburg, Germany (a province of Hanover). The Puritan practices were all but gone in the U.S., so he was free to preach Christianity and practice his childhood traditions from Europe. Zion Lutheran Church, in Cleveland, Ohio, was the perfect start.

On Christmas Eve 1851, the first winter storm of the season hit, and Rev. Schwan decided it was time to put a tree up in his church. He wasn’t sure how well it would be received by parishioners, but he took the risk. Most of his congregation were from Germany, so he was pretty sure they had seen a Christmas tree. (The U.S. did not formally celebrate the holiday until 1870).

Rev. Schwan and his wife made the garland of colored paper and used cookies, nuts, and candles to decorate the beautiful large tree. It was important to share his happiness of the birth of the Christ Child. The next morning, as the congregation arrived for the Christmas service, mixed reactions filtered throughout the church. Some were delighted to see the tree, yet others were offended and angry.

Within a couple of days, the Schwan Christmas tree was headline news, but it wasn’t positive. A prominent newspaper called it “nonsensical, moronic absurdity, and silly.” The media even suggested the church be shunned for idolatry practices. Rev. Schwan was devastated, for he thought it expressed joy. He couldn’t believe many people considered it to be sacrilegious, so he began making inquiries to fellow clergymen about Christmas trees.

A letter arrived one day from the Imgaard family in Wooster, Ohio. Lighting a Christmas tree was part of their family tradition since 1847! So, the following year, Rev. Schwinn met with the community leaders and his congregation to share this news. He convinced them it was not pagan or wicked.

On the eve of Christmas, 1852, another tree blazed in the Zion Lutheran Church. As fate would have it, decorated trees began popping up all over town, and within five years, they appeared all over the country.

It was believed for a very long time, the Schwan Christmas tree was the first to appear in a church in America. However, we found facts that show Rev. John Muehlhaeuser of Rochester, New York, used a tree in his church as early as 1840. However, it was placed there to charge admission and raise money for his building. Today we read that they used Christmas trees in churches in Philadelphia, in 1834, and Fort Dearborn in 1804. Pastor Schwan is fully responsible, though, for gaining the widespread acceptance of Christmas trees in the church. His pastorate later continued by serving many years as the president of the Evangelical Lutheran School of Missouri.

Image courtesy of readtheplaque.com, Bryan Arnold

I would like to touch on the pagan roots of Christmas trees. Using Jeremiah 10:2-4, some Christians believe the following verse maintains their position that Christmas trees are pagan…

“Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”

May I say the Christian belief is the Christmas tree is merely a symbol. To be considered idolatry, it has to be worshiped like God. We do not place our trust in a piece of wood – this is ridicules! Christians need to follow their conscience, though, when deciding if they want to use a Christmas tree. For sure, it should not be a debate that divides us.


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