You are all familiar with the Christmas tree. But were your great-great-grandfathers? Not long ago, it was laughed at and frowned at and railed at, and even forbidden. It came to this country, uncertain whether it might stay. For its light will last only if men love and understand it with their hearts - as you can see from the story of its first year in an American city.
This story starts in a church. Its name was Zion Lutheran Church; and its address was York Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Neither large nor old, it had a gabled roof, no steeple, and a chimney in the rear. It was so plain that at first glance you could mistake it for a dwelling; if you looked again, though, it was every inch a house of God. On Christmas Eve, the minister, Pastor Heinrich Christian Schwan, stood before the little church as his flock arrived for the services. The wide front door was shut, to keep the cold out, and as the hundred or so men, women, and children came up snow-covered York Street, Pastor Schwan opened the door for each with a friendly "Merry Christmas" - and then he watched their faces.
There was not one who did not stop on the threshold and gasp. Pastor Schwan's parishioners were simple folk, as plain as their church. Only their youngest children were born here in the United States; their neat Sunday clothes had crossed the ocean with them, years before; and they never hid their feelings. The women dabbed at their eyes, and the men cleared their throats or blew their noses. Some oldsters peered into the church as if their youth had suddenly risen before them. But the best reward for the minister's labor of love came from the children.
Last of the congregation to arrive was a young mother who led a very small girl by the land. Pastor Schwan let them in and carefully bolted the door; and then, walking up the aisle behind them in the twilight of his church, toward the altar and the tall, green tree glistening in the light of its candles, he heard the child's delighted whisper, "Mother, look - the Pastor's got a tree from Heaven!"
When Pastor Schwan later read the Gospel story of the Nativity to the people, it seemed to him as though he never had seen so heartfelt a Christmas joy. All of this happened quite some time ago. What was then York Street is now Cleveland's Hamilton Avenue, and the little Zion Church has long since been torn down as the congregation moved on to a fine building of stone. For the Christmas was that of 1851, and the tree which the child thought the Pastor had gotten from Heaven was the first tree to shine at an American Christmas service.
The previous story is a true one and told by my relatives. My great-great-great-grandparents were among the German emigrants there that Christmas of 1851 at Zion Lutheran Church, Cleveland. My great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Friedrich Hoelter, was a boy five years old who witnessed these events in person that Christmas Eve. Pastor Heinrich Schwan later became the third President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, serving the synod 1878-99.
The version of the story you read above the dotted line came from: Hertha Pauli, The Story of the Christmas Tree(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1944).
If you are interested in reading more about this true story, there is an online article "America's ‘First' Christmas Tree", published in the Lakewood Observer about Rev. Schwan's Christmas tree. Lakewood is a suburb of Cleveland. Point your web-browser to: http://lakewoodobserver.com/read/2011/12/13/americas-first-christmas-tree You might also be interested in an online article I wrote on the subject several years ago. It contains a video that was produced in 1956 about Rev. Schwan's tree. If you have 25 minutes to watch the video, I think you would find it interesting: http://steadfastlutherans.org/2012/12/our-first-christmas-tree-by-martin-noland. Here is another article that contains additional information on the subject: http://web.ulib.csuohio.edu/German/articles/yule.html.
Of course, Christmas is not really about trees in the plural, but the Tree in the singular, i.e., the Tree of Life. For it is through the incarnation of God's eternal Son that the world has been offered the wonderful gift of eternal life, after mankind was separated from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Jesus died on the tree of the cross, so that we might believe in Him and so inherit eternal life. He is our Tree of Life, and that is always something worth celebrating!
A blessed Christmas to you and yours!