It’s New Year’s Day, a day people nationwide usually “ring” in (whatever that means). But in Cherryville, North Carolina, they don’t just ring it in … they shoot it in.
My dad’s family hails from Cherryville (pronounced Cherr-ville in the local intonation), a small town in the foothills that’s typically a quiet place — until New Year’s Eve arrives.
I grew up hearing all about the New Year’s Shoot from my dad, and what it was like when he was a kid. All the menfolk of the town would gather together along with their old Civil War-era muskets, which had been handed down from generation to generation. Once assembled, they would then go from house to house, firing their guns for good luck in the new year, and sometimes getting fed along the way. They started at midnight and wrapped up around sundown on New Year’s Day.
At the head of the gang, at least for a few decades, was my great-great grandfather, Sidney Beam. Sidney had the exalted role of “crier” or “chanter” — the one who would call out the New Year’s chant, a poem that would be recited at each house before the firing of the guns.
It’s a sentimental poem that sounds a little like a drunken sea chanty, the way he and others after him would sing-say it. Its origins are largely unknown, but my dad says it’s possibly centuries old. It starts out with a hearty “Good morning to you, sir! We wish you a happy new year! Great health, long life, which God may bestow so long as you stay here below.”
The next two dozen lines reflect on the passage of time and the moral debts we owe, although the old English grammar sometimes makes it hard to follow. Finally, it wraps up with, “And for good luck, we’ll fire our guns!” At this point, the gathered shooters would start firing their black powder muskets. The more powder used, the bigger the bang, which led to the development of a rather unique shooting style.
Try to envision it. The shooter crouches over slightly and bends at the knees, the butt of the musket in the right hand, and the left hand on the trigger. As the shooter pulls the trigger, he also spins away at the recoil.
The New Year’s Shoot is thought to have started hundreds of years ago as a means of scaring away evil spirits and ensuring a bountiful new year by shooting over the fields. German settlers likely brought the tradition to Cherryville, which started as a farming community and later became a textile mill town.
Regardless of the origins, however, the tradition has endured, carried out by descendants of the original settlers, (including several of my kinfolk), and, according to the Cherryville New Year’s Shooters Inc., it’s the only place in the entire world where this specific tradition takes place.
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When I was a teen, my family joined our relatives for the New Year’s Shoot one year. I remember being amazed at the number of guns and the sheer intensity of the blasts. I had an eerie sense of what a Civil War battlefield must have felt like, watching with wide eyes as the shooters walked back and forth through the smoky haze, firing their muskets.
As the night wore on, and some people inevitably became drunker, it also became more interesting. We saw firsthand why an ambulance closely follows the shooters around town.
The tradition to make noise at New Year’s is, of course, not unique to the Cherryville New Year’s Shooters. It seems intrinsic in humans to want to make big noises at the turn of the new year.
Celebrating New Year’s in Papua, Indonesia, was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. The fireworks of my childhood were bottle rockets and firecrackers. In Papua, the community went all out on fireworks, and we bought mortars with names like “Saturn Missile Battery” and “Whistling Crackling Thunder.”
At midnight the city seemed to literally erupt with fireworks exploding in all directions. It amazed me that our neighbors, who had so little in terms of material goods, would spend lavish amounts of money on something so fleeting and temporary. It seemed wasteful, even foolish.
Looking back, I wonder if there was a connection between the level of hardship in their lives and the enormity of the firework. As if, by having a massive, exploding celebration was somehow a cathartic way to sonically respond to their circumstances, or at least forget them for a little while. Maybe it was a way to congratulate each other, like the New Year’s Shooters did. “We got through another year! Let’s hope and pray for good things in the next!”
I admit, I’m feeling a little that way this year. Like many others, we faced several major challenges in 2022, and it makes me want to set off a big mortar in our yard as we did in Papua, or find an old musket and fire it off, screaming, “We did it! We made it to a new year!”
We haven’t settled on our new year’s traditions after four years of living in Idaho, other than eating snacks and whacking each other with pillows in an effort to stay awake ‘til midnight.
But this year, even though I lack a black powder musket, I’m thinking of stepping outside and speaking the ancient words into the cold, quiet air: “Good morning to you, ma’am! I wish you a happy new year! Great health, long life, which God may bestow … .”