Holidays are marked by traditions, and any given tradition has many fathers. Nearly all of the time, it's impossible to trace a tradition's beginning to one specific instance. Still, if you happen to be in Cleveland, Ohio, drop by the corner of Lakeside Avenue and East Sixth Street---it's the spot where the city's original Zion Lutheran Church once stood. You'll see a historical marker commemorating the church and its contribution to one of our most prominent Christmas customs. In fact, I'd wager there's an example of it in your home right now.
And that's where Heinrich Christian Schwan comes in.
Heinrich Schwan was born in Horneburg, Germany, in 1819. He attended the universities of Göettigen and Jena, and upon his graduation in 1838, entered theological school. Following his ordainment in 1843, he spent four years in Brazil, working as a missionary, before returning to Horneburg.
But man does not live by scripture alone. In 1849, Heinrich married Emma Blum, the daughter of a plantation owner, and a year later, they emigrated to the United States. Here, the Schwans settled in nicely. He became the pastor of a Lutheran church in Missouri, and even though most of his congregation were German transplants like himself, he American-ised his first name to "Henry", in order to fit in better.
It was when they moved to Cleveland that all the trouble started.
In 1851, the Reverend Schwan accepted the position as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Cleveland. Everything went well, until December rolled around. As America was a nation which expounded religious freedom---the first European settlers had come to these shores seeking it---Heinrich felt that he could bring to his church at least one of the traditional ways the Birth of the Saviour was observed in Germany.
On Christmas Eve, 1851, Mr. and Mrs. Schwan placed in their small, gabled church a symbol of the Christmases they had known in the old country. And it was the first thing the parishioners saw when they entered for services the next day. Their reaction, though, was not what Heinrich had expected.
True, some of them, those who were German immigrants themselves, were delighted by it. But many of the congregation were offended, even angered, at what they saw. Within a few days, word of this outrage was all over town, whispered over fences and ranted about in saloons.
If you're ahead of me and have guessed what Pastor Schwan had installed in his church, it's probably difficult for you to fathom the reason for the uproar. But then, we've lived with this Yuletide tradition all of our lives, as did our parents. And their parents. But to the majority of residents in Cleveland, 1851, it was a strange thing, unheard of. Worse, it was downright sacrilegious. A local newspaper ran a front-page article about it, under the heading "The Road to Paganism!" Another sheet's editorial declared it "nonsensical, moronic absurdity, and silly" and suggested that the church be shunned due to its "heathenish, idolatrous practices".
The Reverend Schwan was devastated at the reaction. He tried to explain. This symbol was not a new idea. Many countries in Europe had displayed the same thing for generations. Not just Germany, but Belgium and Finland and Denmark. Austria, Sweden, and Norway.
It didn't matter how long the list was. They were all foreign countries, and even then, Americans had a parochial view of the way things were done in Europe.
More critically, most Americans of the time, especially those in the northern and mid-western states, believed it unchristian to celebrate at Christmas time. That's what Thanksgiving was for. The birth of Jesus was to be observed with solemn piety.
You can blame the Puritans of New England for that. In their strict interpretation of the Bible, they found no scriptural reference to the Nativity being an occasion of celebration. As for the festivity that occurred in European countries, well, those heathens were simply using Christmas as an excuse for pagan ribaldry. The Puritans were having none of that. They viewed the exchanging of gifts, decorating trees, or any other joyful expression as desecrating the sacred event. In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Company made it a criminal offence to publicly celebrate Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting, or in any other way."
The Puritan hegemony faded out by the early eighteenth century, but it had made its mark. Settlers spread across the country, worshiping Christmas in austere reverence, "the way it had always been done." Even in 1851, businesses and schools were typically open on Christmas Day. None of this forbearing of labour stuff. When you weren't working or sitting in class, you were at the church, praying.
This was the mind-set into which the Reverend Schwan had run headlong.
And what was the item that the good pastor placed in his church? I know many of you have already figured it out that the thing that started all of the ruckus was . . .
. . . a Christmas tree!
Not only was Germany one of those European countries that celebrated Christmas with the addition of a tree to one's home, it's said that's where the tradition started. There, no Christmas was complete without a lighted and decorated tree, and Heinrich Schwan had happy memories of the spreading Yuletide firs that decorated the home of his childhood. He wanted to share that happiness with his congregation.
On Christmas Eve, despite a howling winter storm, Heinrich cut down a hardy spruce tree and stood it up in the church chancel. Then he and Emma trimmed it with apples, walnuts, candles, and garlands of coloured paper. Beneath the tree, they arranged little handmade figurines representing the Nativity, and at the top of the festively decorated evergreen, Pastor Schwan placed a silver star that he had brought with him from Horneburg.
This was the "abomination" that had offended so many of his flock when they entered for services the next day.
Heinrich was not ready to give in quite yet, though. He wanted to show his detractors that there was nothing pagan or sacrilegious about expressing joy at the birth of Jesus with the presence of a Christmas tree.
He made personal visits to fellow pastors on the matter, and he wrote letters, a bunch of letters, to more distant ones. Over the course of the following year, their answers trickled in. Most of the clergymen were aware of the European custom of a Christmas tree and responded that they saw nothing profane about it. Schwan received one letter from Wooster, Ohio. At the prompting of his minister, a man named August Ingaard wrote that his family had lighted a Christmas tree in their home since 1847, and no-one in Wooster had raised an issue over it.
The most telling response came from another Lutheran pastor who told of having read a story from the sacred writings of a Sicilian monastery, how on the holy night when the Christ child was born, all creatures, including the trees, came to worship in Bethlehem. One tree, a cedar, had traveled the farthest and was too weary to stand. According to the writings, one of the stars came down from the heavens and landed atop the cedar. The newborn child in the manger could then see the cedar, shining brightly, and blessed it with a smile.
Pastor Schwan turned these accounts over to the members of his congregation, and opinions began to change. Well, perhaps a Christmas tree wouldn't send them on the road to damnation, after all, and maybe, just maybe, there was something to be celebrated in the birth of Christ.
On Christmas Eve, 1852, Zion Lutheran Church once again displayed a candle-lit Christmas tree. But it wasn't the only one in Cleveland. Decorated trees could be seen in several places throughout the town.
If for no other reason than to keep the fact-checkers happy, it bears mentioning that Pastor Schwan was not the first clergyman in America to decorate his church with a tree at Christmas time. Archived documents show that, in 1840, the Reverend John Muehlhaeuser of Rochester, New York, installed a Christmas tree in his church. However, the purpose was to raise money for the church by charging admission to view the gaily ornamented tree.
Heinrich Schwan simply wanted to bring to his parishioners the same joy of Christmas that he had felt growing up in Horneburg. While he wasn't the first cleric to display a Christmas tree in America, he was certainly the one who conventionalised the practice. After his success in swaying the people of Cleveland, Schwan became a self-appointed missionary of the custom, travelling from town to town, sharing the significance of the evergreen in the Nativity.
It took a while to spread, as all new ideas do. Within five years, Christmas trees were appearing in churches and homes all over the country. By 1870, the idea that the birth of Jesus was an event to be celebrated was so nationally accepted that Congress established Christmas as a Federal holiday.
So, to-day, if you're enjoying the day off to spend Christmas with your family and friends, you have, at least in part, Pastor "Henry" Schwan to thank for it.
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From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!
Merry Christmas to you, Commander. And to us all!
Merry Christmas to all y'all, as we say in the south.
Merry Christmas and blessings to all in the new year ahead.
Another great "secret origin" story, superbly told. Thanks Commander!
Merry Christmas, Commander! And thank you for the wonderful story!