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Could be Ohio's oldest new year's tradition

Swiss Community Historical Society will

sing traditional New Year's carols on Dec. 31


Go to bottom of this story for the carols in German and English



Here's your invitation to be part of what could be the oldest continued new year's tradition in Ohio: Singing traditional German carols composed by David Rothen, a Swiss pioneer in rural Bluffton. The event is sponsored by the Swiss Community Historical Society.

New Year's Caroling, in German and English, takes place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 31. Carolers meet in the lobby of Maple Crest Senior Living, 700 Maple Crest Court. After rehearsal, the group will sing in the halls of Maple Crest. Music scores will be provided and first-time carolers are welcome to join.

Here’s some background on the song writer and the caroling tradition, written in December, 1984, by Agnes Amstutz

Have any of you gone serenading on New Year’s Eve? I have. The first time I recall was about 1912 or so. These carols, or “Neujahr’s-Lied” have a long history of being sung in the Swiss settlement.


I quote from the Bixel Family History written by Betty Bixel Miller: “These carols were preserved, thanks to the memory of Mrs. Abraham Bixel (Magdalene Schumacher). These two songs “Neujahr’s-Lied” and “Stimmt Lieder An” had traditionally been sung, one outside the home and after the group had been invited in, the second song was sung.”


These songs were almost lost, but a teacher, David Rothen, transcribed the words and music as they were sung by Mrs. Abraham Bixel.


These songs were later published by my father, D.C. Amstutz, who published music.


When I was 17 or so, I was invited by my cousin Burdella Amstutz to go with a group of carolers from the Ebenezer Mennonite Church.


Burdella and I were to stay the night with an aunt, Barbara Amstutz. She lived about one-fourth mile east of the Ebenezer Church.


My father took me to Aunt Barbara’s with a horse and buggy. There we were picked up by some farmer who had placed a wagon box on top of a bob-sled.


We were covered with blankets. The night was beautiful, as I remember.


Clear sky, sparkling snow, but no snow falling that New Year’s Eve. We were going to sing at homes in one square mile, just across from aunt Barbara’s farm.


1894 Bluffton News story

In this square mile were the homes of C.W. Roethlisberger, John Winkler, P.B. Amstutz, Chris Gratz and Peter Zimmerly.


At each home we first sang the “Neujahr’s-Lied,” and after we were invited in we sang “Stimmt Lieder An.” Then we were given refreshments.


Our last home was the Peter Zimmerly’s. Those good folks wanted to do something special for we carolers, so they made us homemade ice cream!


By this time we were stuffed full of goodies and tired and very cold. I for one would have liked something hot.


The bob-sled then left us at the end of Aunt Barbara’s lane. We walked quickly into the house and into our warm beds.


One other New Year’s Eve I recall clearly. A group of my peers met at the First Mennonite Church.


1943 Bluffton News story

We were taken first to the Noah Moser home, where Hulda and Homer in our group lived.


Again, we were in a wagon box placed on a bob-sled. Then to the Peter Herr home. In our group were Vidella and Milo Herr.


Another stop was at the home of Hallie Thutt’s parents. Another was the Lewis Gratz home, where Lillie and Walter lived. Here we were given a “whipped cream” pie.


And, of course, in the other homes we were given all sorts of goodies including “nothings.”


These were made by rolling noodle dough very thin and frying the round pieces in hot lard. They were crisp and delicious.


Other years, older members of the church were in the group, and we sang mostly for older and sick people.


By this time the refreshments were lacking, but it was fun to sing these carols anyway.


Finally, a few of my friends were invited to one of our homes on New Year’s Eve, but we still continued singing the carols.



David Rothen background

David Rothen was born in Switzerland in 1805.


“As a shepherd boy he cared for the flocks of his father and neighbors, going up into the mountains in the spring of the year with flocks and staying there until the approaching snows of winter drove them to the foothills and home,” according to a June 1945 article written by C.D. Steiner for the Putnam County Historical Society.


After learning the tailor’s trade and “saving all he could,” he was able to go away to school, where he learned to read, write and speak in German, English and French, Steiner wrote, adding that he eventually became an instructor in a Swiss school.


However, after hearing “glowing accounts” of life in America “where there was freedom of worship and a great need for teachers and preachers,” Rothen decided to emigrate. Before leaving he married Barbara Hartmetz, who was from Germany. In 1832, Rothen and his wife left for America.


“Embarking at Hamburg from whence a large number of Swiss and Germans made their passage to America,” Steiner wrote, “he landed In New York City. From there he made his way to Buffalo and from there to Richland County, Ohio.”


After living there a few years he and his family, which by then included two daughters, returned to Buffalo and then back to Perrysburg, Ohio.


“There he hired a man to take the entire family through the Black Swamp to Riley Township, Putnam County, Ohio” around 1835, according to Steiner.


Rothen claimed 160 acres of land in Riley Township “upon which he built a log cabin largely with his own hands, using a quilt for a door the first winter,” Steiner wrote. “For a few years they lived in the deep woods but gradually he kept clearing the land and thus was able to raise crops, especially corn and a garden.”


Soon, Rothen interested neighboring settlers in building a schoolhouse, where he taught for several years.


“His next venture in teaching,” Steiner wrote, “was in a building located about a mile south of what was known in Riley Township as ‘Beech Tree School.’ It really was a schoolhouse and church combined.”


Steiner described Rothen as “much more of an idealist than a realist,” who engaged in farming “more for the purpose of having food for his family and a home than a source of income.” He did “considerable traveling for the American tract society, distributing and selling Christian literature and Bibles” as far south as Cincinnati, Steiner noted.


“What he liked possibly best of all was to write religious poetry and compose fitting tunes for his poems,” Steiner wrote.


It was two of those tunes his former pupils remembered. Although none of the former pupils could remember the tunes being written down, they did recall that Rothen had taught them the songs “and that he accompanied them to various Swiss Settlement homes to delight them with their singing of these and other hymns on New Year’s Eve,” according to the story.


Eventually the students recreated from memory the two songs, which were then printed on “heavy card stock,” the Bluffton News wrote. “It soon became a popular thing for young people from each of the churches of Swiss background to spend New Year’s Eve caroling at each home,” the newspaper wrote.

Cover of sheet music from 1890s

A January 1946 story in the Bluffton News described the tradition.

“Although the singing of Christmas carols is almost universal, the custom of heralding the New Year with songs is rare. Bluffton’s New Year serenading is the survival of an ancient Swiss custom brought here by the first settlers of that nationality nearly a century ago and is one of the few pioneer traditions that have held their own against the encroachments of modern life.


The songs — there are only two of them — are the same ones that have been sung all through the many years, as young people, and older ones too, have greeted the passing of the year in song,” the newspaper wrote.


“Singing these quaint old-world songs, bands of carolers since that time each New Year’s Eve trudge the streets of town and highways of the countryside. However, their rounds are not aimlessly made,” the newspaper wrote.


“The route is well defined and carefully planned in advance. A light in the window is the signal that beckons the carolers, and after the singing a warm welcome is provided inside the house. Cookies, cakes and other goodies are heaped high on the table to reward the singers.”


Older serenaders, according to the 1946 story, recalled an elderly Swiss cobbler who lived alone and cherished the annual visit of the carolers.


“With no feminine hands in his kitchen to provide the customary outlay of baked goods, he substituted a large bowl filled with nickels as his contribution to the singers,” the Bluffton News wrote.






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