Don't overdo the braunschweiger

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I have a lingering memory of a New Year's Eve long past when I became ill by eating too many braunschweiger sandwiches. A teenage baby sitter was otherwise preoccupied talking to friends on the phone; I don't think I've touched braunschweiger -- a pork liver sausage spread -- since.

Another memory is bringing in the new year making dozens of holiday bagels with my future wife. We stayed up so late we nearly missed a flight the next morning. The gate held up departure as two college kids made a mad dash for the plane on an icy Jan. 1 morning.

New Year's Eve is synonymous in popular conception with celebratory excess. With overdoing of one kind or another. It seems we are unable, as a culture, of permitting one year to give way to another without some sort of activity. Tens of thousands of people, many in various stages of inebriation, gather for a midnight ball drop in New York's Times Square. "Happy New Year!" is the cry as beer sloshes out of plastic cups.

It long has been thus. In 18th century England, public drunkenness and carousing were so prevalent on New Year's Eve that a clergyperson devised an alternative. John Wesley, borrowing a notion from Peter Bohler and the Moravians (to whom he was greatly indebted spiritually), started a "Watch Night" service on New Year's Eve. It was an effort to lure people away from the pubs and other alcohol-driven social gatherings. During these sometimes three-hour services, hymns were sung and prayers were offered. "Watch Night" was a rededication to God as participants "watch" for the new year.

Historically, "Watch Night" has been important in the black church community because of the legacy of slavery. At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts. The slaves didn't know if, after the tallying, they'd be separated. New Year's Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together.

Watch Night took on even more significance during the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to take effect Jan. 1, 1863. Slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.

Let's imagine the benefits to a Watch Night experience today. Imagine inviting folks to church on New Year's Eve -- to sing, to pray, to eat and then to sleep. Upon awaking the next morning, on the first day of the new year, the church could host a breakfast for all. Maybe it's time to think outside the box and be together for an evening of God-oriented sober fun and reflection. Maybe some church will do that. Maybe it will be mine.

Such a New Year's Eve celebration is likely to leave a memory far healthier than braunschweiger, bagels, a ball drop -- or a hangover.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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