Friday, December 17, 2010

Zion Lutheran Church, Cleveland and the First Christmas Tree

Clamor Brueggeman and his family were members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland. He arrived in 1860 from Hanover. Trinity's first pastor, the Rev. John Lindemann of Hanover, Germany, came to Cleveland with his family in August of 1853, and resided with (and worked as an assistant to) Pastor HC Schwan of Zion Congregation.  He was assigned to serve the newly established Trinity conrgregation in Ohio city 

Zion has the distinction of being the first Christmas Tree in a Church.   The pastor, Heinrich Christian Schwan, was from Hanover, the same area in Germany that Clamor was from.

It is likely that Clamor and his family were very familiar with the tradition of a Christmas tree and his Pastor, Rev. Lindemann likely carried on the tradition started by Rev. Schwan which beginnings are told below.

The History of Zion's Christmas Tree (this is copied from their website)
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.

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, 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.

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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