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.
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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.
Some in the Valley still used the native tongue for their greetings, although English seems to have been more common. Each spokesman was responsible for memorizing the metered verses, which were passed down and changed by captains over the years. Of all the variations, only six greetings from the New Year’s Shooting are now known, and they all share a common first line:
Awake, Awake, my neighbors dear,
And to my wish prolonging year,
The New Year is now at the door;
The old one’s past and comes no more.
I wish to you a happy year,
That from bad luck you may be clear;
You and your family and all the rest,
May with content be ever blessed.
That health and plenty may abound,
With you and all the rest around,
That you may be free and able
To feed the hungry at your table.
Your barn may well with grain be filled ;
Your fields and meadows handsome flocked ;
Your cribs may well with corn be flowing
And the thirst may not be known.
But mind beside that blessed hand,
Is that which takes at your command :
All that we have can be destroyed
In which our minds are most employed.
By day, by night, at home, abroad
Still we are guarded by our God,
By his unerring council led,
By his bounty clothed and fed.
Then far beyond this mortal shore,
We’ll meet with those that’s gone before,
Then to think we’ll gain the day,
To load and shoot the good old way.
Though he may his power employ,
For to exist for to destroy
Yet never we’ll gain the day
To load and shoot the good old way.
And wish I now to make an end
For too much time I cannot spend.
Shall I salute your wish again,
Or would you be opposed to shame?
Either pudding sausage, cider bounce or brandy
Or any such a thing which is handy,
The noise shall sound throughout the air
This is the day I do declare.
And you I will decline,
This shall be an ending wish of mine
“New Year’s shooting doesn’t exist anymore,” reported JMU anthropology professor Elmer Smith in 1977. “I suppose the exchange of Merry Christmas, Happy New Year cards began to make more sense.” We’re not as isolated as we were 100 years ago, and we don’t need to trudge from house to house in the snow with loaded guns to check in with one another in the winter. However, reading one of the surviving greetings of the New Year’s Shooters seems to bring the spirit of that bygone era to life.
By Kristin Noell
 Stoudt, 103-104.
 Editor, 16.
 Editor, 18.
 Smith, 102.
 Smith, 103-105.
 “Old Yule Customs Linger On.”
Earehart, C.L. “Belsnickeling: Shades of a Valley Christmas Past.” Daily News-Record (December 20, 1984): 20.
Editor. “Shooting in the New Year: A Peculiar Pennsylvania-German Custom.” The Pennsylvania-German 8, no. 1 (January 1907): 15-18.
“Old Yule Customs Linger On.” Daily News-Record (December 22, 1977): 13.
Smith, Elmer Lewis, John G. Stewart, and M. Ellsworth Kyger. The Pennsylvania Germans of the Shenandoah Valley. Allentown, PA : Schlechter’s, 1964.
Stoudt, John Baer. The Folklore of the Pennsylvania Germans: A Paper Read Before the Pennsylvania-German Society at the Annual Meeting, York, Pennsylvania, October 14th, 1910. N.p.: W.J. Campbell, 1916.