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April 14, 2021

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You'll have to sing a solo tonight

No group singing of Bluffton's oldest tradition this year

Covid-19 curtailed this year's New Year's Eve group sing of the David Rothen carols. So, we invite you to sing them by yourself and we hope to bring back the group choir singing next year. Here's the story about the oldest tradition in Bluffton.

To best understand our community, it's helpful to appreciate the musical gene of those who carry a Bluffton or Pandora birthmark.

Growing up in a household bursting of Swiss traditions, this truth became obvious early on in the shaping of my own attitude toward events swirling around me.

A case in point is the David Rothen New Year's caroling folklore. My parents' reference to this event centered on their teen years in the late 1920s.

Later, in conversations with Milt Sprunger, who represented an even earlier generation, I began to appreciate the meaning of this tradition. His carol stories came from the turn of an earlier century.

There were other stories - short references, bits and pieces in conversation, Swiss-dialect phrases I didn't understand, winks, names, chuckles - I picked up along the way from cast of characters including but not limited to Gerry Bucher, Alan Grismore, Wilhelm Amstutz, Hiram Kohli, Delbert Gratz, Sr., and Meredith Stepleton.

Summarizing this oral cantata goes something like this:
In the Bluffton-Pandora Swiss community there exists an event (door-to-door caroling mostly to farm houses) so old it's Layer One of our traditional oral bedrock. It's as old as Shannon (now Bluffton) and Pendleton (now Pandora). And it is uniquely our own.

It's roots sprouted from the Swiss Reform Church (now St. John's and Emmanuel UCC). It dribbled over into the Swiss Mennonite tradition. Why? Perhaps the Reform group had all the fun on New Year's Eve; perhaps not. I'm not certain.

The event evolved into various spontaneously-formed New Year's Eve caroling parties, largely made up of groups of youths (both sexes) looking for a parental-approved reason to do something different one night each year and stay out as late a possible.

Several versions of this caroling experience included stories of carolers visiting farms where the singers came across farmers actually milking cows in the early morning hours. The tradition waned and nearly disappeared during the 1940s.
But, it never really went away.

The small flame of this tradition, while nearly extinguished, was kept alive by people like Morris Groman and others, from the Swiss Reformed tradition. Today the Swiss Community Historical Society is the caroling caretaker.

It may never return to its once-upon-a-time wave of large group caroling. But, the tune and words remain part of our community's well of knowledge, where the tradition rests in good hands.

Rothen's words and music belongs to us all. The attachments to this story include the carols in German in English and a pronounciation guide, if you don't know German.