This time of year is a good time to remember traditions that remind us of generations who came before us. One of the best culture keepers in this region was an Ellis County historian named Lawrence Weigel. He visited my classes each year in the early 90s to share tales about Volga German customs involving Christ Kind, Belznickel, and New Year wϋnsching (winching) traditions with high school freshmen. Nodding heads confirmed that some youngsters’ families still practiced these Old World activities. At the same time, puzzled faces and blank looks revealed that others were clueless about such customs. My own Volga German family didn’t pass on these stories so I was thrilled to learn them. Every January 1, I think of Mr. Weigel’s anecdotes about families calling on one another on the New Year to share wishes for health, long life, good luck, peace and health, and eternal happiness after death.
As only a beloved grandfather figure can, our lecturer described a festive day of visiting, feasting, and a bit of tippling. Part of this practice involved parents teaching youngsters to recite a wish that ran something like this passage I found online, “ Ich wϋnsche euch ein glϋckseliges Neues Jahr. Langes Leben. Gesϋndheit. Fried und Einigkeit. Und nach dem Tod, ewig Glϋckseligkeit.” As families traveled door-to-door or farm-to-farm, children lucky to be the first visitor or a beloved relative earned a coin for their efforts along with a handful of nuts or sweets. I’ve listened to more than one elder tell stories of reciting this rhyme to collect spending money. Recalling such memories always brought a sparkle to their eyes and a lilt to their voices.
According to Mr. Weigel, this occasion was also a day for young men old enough to marry to court available local maidens. If I recollect correctly, he explained the Romeos announced their arrival with a shotgun blast to the sky. I’m not sure how romantic that was, but young women possessing several color-coded ribbons eagerly awaited noisy suitors. I can imagine girls biting lips and pinching cheeks to increase their rosy tint on an already cold morning. I’m guessing a certain amount of shy smiling and foot shuffling took place as well since adults and younger siblings stood nearby to supervise the show. Girls would pin their good will tokens on callers’ lapels, saving a particular color for a special fellow. I’d love to hear one of these stories firsthand.
Storekeepers certainly would’ve encouraged this custom since so many families produced much of their only holiday food rather than buying it. Despite their customers’ self-sufficient natures, demand for ammo and fripperies at the local mercantile would’ve increased merchant bank deposits during days leading up to this holiday.
This time of year on social media, I see folks sending one another this New Year greeting. I hope area families continue to share customs that crossed the sea and traveled overland with their ancestors. These are little traditions, yet they remind us of brave forebearers who left the familiar to offer descendants a better life. Many of us can honestly say this centuries old good luck wish has worked out well.