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Dr. Henry Schwan -- Father of the Decorated Christmas Tree


Dr. Henry Schwan -- Father of the Decorated Christmas Tree
(© istockphoto; licensed to About, Inc.) Zion UCC Church

Zion UCC Church

(© 2006 S. Mitchell; Licensed to About, Inc.)

In 1851, the Rev. Heinrich Christian Schwan, a German immigrant and Lutheran pastor, added to Cleveland, Ohio's rich history when he introduced the first lighted Christmas tree in Zion Lutheran church and helped spread the tradition across America. Now, over a century and a half later, Schwan's Tannenbaum, has branched out into numerous variations though its history remains rooted in Germanic tradition.

Background of Henry C. Schwan:

Schwan was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1819, and graduated from Jena University in east central Germany in 1842. Ordained in 1843, he served a mission in Brazil where he met his wife, Emma, whom he married in 1849. The couple arrived in Cleveland in 1851 where Schwan became pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. During his 30 year tenure as pastor, Schwan performed 2,793 baptisms and 1,034 confirmations. He died May 29, 1905 and is buried at Lake View Cemetery.

Heinrich's Tree:

To celebrate the couple's first Cleveland Christmas, Schwan sauntered to the nearby forest where he selected and cut down a fine evergreen and brought it back to his church. Together, they adorned the tree with cookies, colored ribbons, fancy nuts and candles and topped it with a silver star from his childhood. Content and happy, the couple was eager to present it to their German congregation, most of whom were probably familiar with the tradition.

While many in his congregation were pleased, others were shocked, and some newspapers reported the event as idolatrous, heathenish and nonsensical. But Schwan stood by his actions and left the tree standing. However, shortly thereafter, he gave in and took down his tree. The following year, in 1852, Schwan accented his church once again with a tree and, to his surprise, found that he was not alone. Within five years Christmas trees were found all over the country.

A Brief History of the Christmas Tree:

The Christmas tree has an extensive history and while its precise origin varies and is debatable, there is no doubt that it comes from Germany. Pre-Christian Germanic people practiced Norse mythology and pagan rituals took place outdoors under guardian trees. Nordic tradition venerated the evergreen as a tree of life because it remained green year round and Druids adorned their trees with coins and charms.

When St Boniface (ca. 675-755) went to Germany to teach Christianity, he used the three points of the evergreen to symbolize the Trinity. Around the 12th century, European tradition was to hang the tree upside down from the ceiling to symbolize Christianity but it wasn't until the 16th century in Germany that the Christmas tree became a regular symbol and tradition of Christmas.

The Lake View Cemetery Annual Memorial:

Every year, Hope Lutheran Church celebrates and commemorates the accomplishments of Rev. Schwan by holding a graveside tree-trimming ceremony. For more information visit Lake View's website or call 216-421-2665.

(Updated 4-11-08)

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