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Wendish new year's customs

East Bernard Express of East Bernard, Texas

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Because my family had so many customs for celebrating the new year, I tried to trace them back to their origin. I found that most of the customs come out of my mother's family traditions, which means they were essentially Wendish-German customs. The Wends were Slavic people without a homeland who lived in Germany — I think they were the only Slavic people who didn't have a homeland. Usually their customs tended to be similar to those of other Slavs, like Czechs and Poles, rather than to German traditions.

One New Year's custom was to fire a gun or guns into the air at midnight, a custom shared by countless cultures all over the world, including the Chinese. This was a leftover pagan method of keeping the evil spirits from following them into the New Year.

However, for the Wendish-Germans, it was connected to a tradition involving the "Wepelrot" (not a custom observed by my family). A Wepelrot was made out of a willow pole with a wreath, or garland in the shape of a wheel, on top of it. The wheel-like wreath had spokes that protruded, and on the end of each spoke an apple was stuck. There was a gold ornament in the center of the "wheel." The descriptions of it which I have read make it seem almost like some type of bizarre creature.

Fun-lovers would go to someone's house on New Year's Eve, open a door or window, and throw the Wepelrot into the house. Then they would fire a gun into the air to alert the family to the invasion of the Wepelrot. Alerted, the family members would chase after the mischief-makers, and when they caught them, they would bring them back to the house and make them drink water mixed with soot. After that, the mischief-makers would celebrate the new year together with the family.

I cannot help but think, connected to the Wepelrot tradition, was the superstitious belief that no wheel should be allowed to turn during the 12 days of Christmas (Dec. 25 through Jan. 6). Women were not supposed to use their spinning wheels, the wheels of your cart should not turn; and if grain were ground by the power of a waterwheel, such was not to be done. If wheels did turn at your home, all sorts of bad things would happen to you. For example, if the wife used the spinning wheel, hordes of frogs would come into the house. The head of the Wepelrot was a wheel.

New Year's customs everywhere involved eating certain foods on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, such as eating black-eyed peas. The Wendish tradition, which my family did observe, was to eat pickled or creamed herring on new year's. If you ate herring on New Year's Eve, you would have money the rest of the year.

Another custom my family observed faithfully, though jokingly, every New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight was to jump off the table, holding a handful of coins. If you jumped off the table at midnight with your hands full of coins, you would have money all year long. When my mother, grandmother, and aunts were younger, they jumped off the kitchen table; in later years, they jumped off the coffee table. Only the women did this, because their husbands were not Wendish and thought the ritual silly. Well, my grandfather was Wendish, but he was much too serious to do anything so outrageous as that. My brother and I thought it was really great fun, so naturally we had to do it. My parents were not happy with the idea when we tried to do it on a daily basis after New Year's.

The fact that my parents, maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, and, later, cousins, gathered together for the New Year's celebration was part of the Wendish way of life. Today, among Wends and other ethnic groups, you don't see this family togetherness so much anymore. My Wendish relatives were very close to one another, even getting together with second and third and fourth cousins. In many cultures, you don't even know your second and third cousins, much less your great aunts, great uncles, etc. Of course, in those days, it was easier for extended families to gather together for any and all occasions, because almost all of my maternal relatives lived in Lee County and were only 20 or 30 miles away from each other. Half of them lived in Dime Box. Gathering together as a family was easy under those circumstances, and considered essential.

As we begin the new year, I want to wish each and every one of my readers a very happy new year, a year filled with many, many of God's greatest blessings!

Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wal-lis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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Original Publication Date: January 2, 2014

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