A few years ago, we mused about the Valley tradition of belsnickling at Christmas. (See Valley Christmas Folk Traditions, December 16, 2011.) This year, we bring to light a local New Year’s tradition that faded into memory a century ago: shooting in the New Year.
On New Year’s Eve, a group would gather at their leader’s house. According to local historian and author John Stewart, “To be elected captain of the community’s shooters was a great honor.” Unlike belsnickelers, the New Year Shooters were an all-male group. The men would visit farms and houses in the area during the early hours of the New Year. They called to the head of the house by name, and after receiving a response, they would sing a greeting with wishes for the coming year. This was followed by discharging their guns, and in some cases fireworks or dynamite, and other loud noises.
Like many Valley traditions, shooting in the New Year migrated south with the Pennsylvania Germans. The New Year was generally thought of as a secular, rather than religious, holiday in Germany. According to one Pennsylvania German, “This custom of New Year wishing, like many other of our holiday customs, can be traced not only to the fatherland, but to some rite or custom of the time when our forefathers were heathen.” Apparently, many areas of Germany have New Year’s traditions that feature crowds and noises. Still, some of the New Year’s Shooters did sing hymns and recite scripture under their neighbors’ windows in addition to the more “heathen” noisemaking. Though the practice of shooting in the New Year was nearly extinct in Pennsylvania by the 1860s, it continued in the Valley in isolated areas until World War I.
The tradition was a way to show concern for one’s neighbor in the days before greeting cards. An article in the Pennsylvania-German notes: “In that elder day, when brass-bands and other instrumentalities for serenading were not so common as now, the new-year shooting salutation also had its significance and possibly its benefits. It was a means of manifesting good will and expressing greetings which now is supplanted by less offensive methods.” After receiving New Year’s wishes, folks usually invited the group in for refreshments, like cake or mince pies and hot beverages—often alcoholic. Shooting in the New Year was a neighborly, community-minded event.
Of course, while some shooters focused on being neighborly, others used the tradition as an excuse to let off steam in the dead of winter. In some cases, men were known to skip the traveling greetings, instead meeting at the blacksmith’s, loading the anvil and firing off massive charges. Some shooters would pour in extra powder and stuff the guns with paper, which could be dangerous. One Valley man remembered his brother’s gun exploding and a piece injuring his head. And while most of the traditional greetings were tasteful wishes, there was also the occasional shorter rude doggerel Dram un Seidereil (hard cider). The article also notes, “Probably both customs, [belsnickeling and shooting in the new year], were born of kind, friendly, pious motives, but later degenerated, as all good customs are apt to do, into practices ‘more honored in the breach than in the observance.’”
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In the Valley, the custom varied from region to region and between religious affiliations. For instance, it was popular among Lutherans but frowned upon by Mennonites, though some Brethren did accept greetings and show hospitality to their non-Brethren neighbors. “They use to come around to make a wish at our house…We had them come in and we’d give them something to eat, but we wouldn’t give them anything [alcoholic] to drink,” remembered one Church of the Brethren member. Valley Shooters also adapted the tradition to make it their own. In Shenandoah County, guns were accompanied by big saws, cow bells, and sometimes a bull fiddle, an instrument with a strange sound that carried great distances. While organized parties of Shooters weren’t common in some parts of the Valley, New Year’s noise certainly was. In Broadway and Timberville, shooting off firecrackers was a popular New Year’s activity. In Bergton and Criders, men fired their guns at midnight, even if they didn’t visit their neighbors’ homes. And in southwestern Rockingham County, some blasted dynamite to welcome the New Year.