Folk celebrations that accompany the New Year were a vital part of Pennsylvania German culture. Essentially these celebrations were religious in nature. On the one hand, since the first day of the year come in the midst of Twelvetide in our modern calendar, the festivities were colored by the religious solemnity of Christmas and Epiphany. On the other hand, they retained elements of more ancient practices when the coming of the new year was welcomed in the spring. Thus it was not uncommon if the celebrations were boisterous in the midst of solemn blessings, or, to be more specific and to recognize the propensity of the folk-mind to see life in vivid contrasts, if the celebrants reverently sang during this season of the birth of the Christ Child and also jocularly wished that their friends might have a bastard child during the year.
It was customary in some Pennsylvania German communities for groups of men to go about the neighborhood during the midnight hours in order to shoot in the New Year and to extend religious blessing and oft-times rather ribald wishes to their friends. Whether these celebrations were sacred or secular, or a blending of the two, they were not complete unless they included these three essentials: gunpowder to be shot off in guns or on anvils in order to make a much noise as possible, a wisher to chant the blessing, and meat and drink that was to be supplied by the celebrants by those who had been celebrated.
All work was suspended the day before New Year. After the chores had been completed and supper eaten, friends and their families gathered at each other's homes to eat and drink away the last hours before the new year began. During the course of the evening, three or four traditional wishes were exchanged between the various families. After the wishes had been exchanged and midnight arrived, the menfolk took their guns outside and fired several volleys into the air to "shoot in the new year." Several variations of this typical pattern were made, but the general procedure remained the same for many years.
Typically the party consisted of about eight men, all of whom continued on the rounds through the second half of the night, from twelve o'clock until daylight. It had been definitely arranged for beforehand. The wisher carried no gun. All the rest had guns, usually shotguns. If someone did not happen to have a shotgun, they could borrow any firearm. One time, a reveler was lent an ancient muzzle-loading pistol. Since, however, the user had to load virtually the whole muzzle full of powder, he made as much noise as any. Unfortunately, the "blame thing" would misfire at times, thus introducing a little irregularity into the salute.
They visited only well-known old-timers. Everybody was in bed, of course, when they came, but the men would usually know whereabouts the man of the house was sleeping, and they would gather under that particular window and line up. Then the wisher would call out the man's name until he answered. As soon as he had heard the answer, the wisher would start out on the wish; some could be very long and may have as many as a hundred lines. At that time, they would get their guns ready to shoot. When it came time to shoot, the wisher would touch them on the back, one man after the other, so that the shots came in succession. When the shooting was done, the people were usually ready to welcome the men into the house, where they had all sorts of things to eat and drink. The suppers usually consisted of turkeys, ducks, sausage, chickens, mince pies, and cakes of all kinds. Coffee and cider were served up in abundance. The latter, especially if it was hard stuff, was usually passed by, though there were some in the party who had previously been known to overindulge occasionally. If anyone misbehaved in any manner, he was expelled. They used to eat a little and enjoy a little visit, and then pass on to the next place. The whole proceeding was done in the soberest manner possible, as though it were a ceremony rather than a frolic.
Sometimes they had to wait quite a little while after the shooting was done. This was not on account of any discourtesy on the homeowner's part, but simply because he had carefully listened to every word of the wish before he started to get ready to come down. His greeting, when he appeared, would be as cordial as any they received. Folks elsewhere really missed most of the wish because they were hurrying down stairs while it was going on. There was one place where the wisher gave a second wish, just about as long as the first. If the home had a grown unmarried daughter, the second wish was especially for her.
Wood-cuts of soldiers or civilians carrying guns were used evidently to illustrate the practice of shooting in the New Year. Since it was deemed imperative to visualize the audible, one can better appreciate the dynamic nature of the custom, a custom that persists to the present day in the rural areas. Shooting had been a practice that persisted in spite of the fact that the Pennsylvania legislators as early as 1774 passed a law forbidding the discharging of guns in the New Year celebration. This legislation may account for the apologetic warning that the celebrant gave to the host that if no objection was heard they would shoot in the New Year in his honor. The celebrators felt that if they heard no objections they were not breaking the law or, at least, that they need not fear arrest. The following translation is typical of the traditional New Year Wish, this one dating to about 1875, with a last addition in order to accommodate itself to the letter of the law:
"I wish you and your friends, your sons and daughters, hired hands and maid servants, and all others who pass in and out of this house a happy New Year. May God grant that this wish become true. We wish you much luck and may all ill luck be far from you. The year 18- commences in the name of Jesus Christ and the old year is ended. We thank Thee that peace and happiness obtains now....We live from one year to the next, full of anxiety and woe, full of fear and war.
We wish that God may protect your house from fire and flood, from sickness and unexpected death. Although much care and sorrow threatened this past year, Thou hast been our protection and may Thou thus continue through the coming year and until our hair turns gray and we enter into heaven. May God's blessing be upon you until at last you come to sit with the elect above.
May the Lord spread his hand over you and bless your house and land. May the Lord give you your daily bread and whatever other sustenance you may need for your body...
May your year be full of peace, yours and everyone's.
To wish you a blessed New Year I have come. May we shoot in the New Year? We are strangers come to begin the New Year with you. Be not frightened so early in the morning. If you have any objections to our shooting say so. Since we hear no objections you shall now hear some shooting, all done in your honor. I bring my wish to a close, we cock our arms and you'll see the powder burn."
HAPPY NEW YEAR!