New Year’s Eve and Bunions

New Year’s Eve and Bunions December 28, 2023

New Year’s Eve and Bunions Photo Credit: Eventbrite

New Year’s Eve and bunions: what do they have in common? Nothing if you do normal things on New Year’s Eve. By normal I mean:

Not my family, though. No, my family stayed at home most of the Christmas break. When New Year’s Eve finally rolled around, we had the privilege of staying awake until midnight; at church.

New Year’s Eve Watch Night Photo Credit: Black Mail Blog

“On New Year’s Eve, our family gathered…for a watch-night service”

Every year on New Year’s Eve, our family gathered with others from our church for a watch-night service. Some say these services are a carryover from the time of Jesus, or even Moses. Others point to the Moravians in the early part of the 18th century. John Wesley attended 1 of these Moravian watch-night services and suggested that all Methodist followers should employ it. For African-American believers, there is an even more poignant meaning. New Year’s Eve 1862 was more than a waiting period for the new year, it was a time of anticipation. The Emancipation Proclamation was set to take effect January 1, 1863. For that reason, on December 31, 1862, they referred to their gathering as Freedom’s Eve.

New Year’s Eve “Prayer & Fellowship” Photo Credit: Trinity Presbyterian Church

For our church tradition (Church of God Cleveland, TN), New Year’s Eve was a special time of fellowship, rededication, and 1 holdover from time past. I’ll get to that later, but never in a million years would I have told my friends from school what we did on New Year’s Eve. If the subject of New Year’s Eve came up, I’d usually drop a pencil and kick it down the hall so I’d be too far from the group to talk about it. It’s not just that we went to church that was the big deal, it’s what we did at church.

“Bored at Church” New Year’s Eve Service Photo Credit: Mark Williams

1 time though, I told my very best friend about it. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked, “What’s a watch-night service?” When I struggled to explain, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head.  I asked my parents if other church people had to go to watch-night service. Dad said, “Don’t say you have to go, say you get to go. Like, when your friends ask, ‘Hey Ken, what are you doing New Year’s Eve?’ You can answer, ‘I get to go to watch-night service.’”Right. I just dropped the subject. 

Mars-Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum

When it was finally New Year’s Eve, we all dressed up like it was Sunday. My sister and I sat in the backseat, and Dad drove us, as our sweet mother hummed gospel songs and clapped with the back of her right hand onto the palm of the left; sort of a half-clap. That’s usually when I would ask Mom for some gum. I still remember the scent when my mom opened her purse in the car: Wrigley’s Doublemint Chewing Gum and Jergens Hand Lotion, mixed with Evening in Paris perfumeAh, heavenly.

New Year’s Eve Service songs in Church Hymnal – The Red Back Hymnal by Tennessee Music and Printing Company

“…our church was…heavily influenced by its Appalachian roots”

New Year’s Eve Service usually began around 7:00 p.m. as the pastor or music director would lead the congregation in a few gospel hymns from the “Church Hymnal,” more commonly called the red-back hymnal. The red-back hymnal had 410 gospel hymns of hope in the shape-note or shaped-note format.  The Church of God began in Monroe County, Tennessee in 1886 as a Holiness church that soon found her Pentecostal wings. Even though our church was in Pontiac, Michigan, it was heavily influenced by its Appalachian roots and songs from that hymnal. From its pages, we sang songs like: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Oh I Want To See Him,” and “Heaven’s Jubilee.”

“Testimony” Photo Credit:

“This is where the bunions came into play”

Between the congregational singing, members shared personal testimonies of God’s goodness. Sometimes, members from other Churches of God attended. They would usually offer someone to sing a “special song,” so to speak. We kept this up for a few hours and then dismissed to the fellowship hall where the Ladies Willing Worker Band had prepared plenty of food. Most of us kids ran around the empty classrooms playing tag while the adults cleaned up. They also rearranged the chairs for the last part of the New Year’s Eve Service. This is where the bunions came into play.

“Footwashing” – Photo Credit: Bill Holdridge

“Carefully, they caressed the foot offering prayers for blessing”

The Church of God observes 3 sacred ordinances: water baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper or Communion, and feet-washing. When it was time for that portion of the watch-night service, the men and women separated into different areas of the church. In each area, 2 people sat on either side of a basin of water. Then they took turns washing each other’s feet as Jesus had done with his disciples. Carefully, they caressed the foot, offering prayers for blessing.

Painful Bunions Photo Credit: Timothy P. Barry, D.P.M.

If you’ve never participated in such a service then you should know a few things. First, feet stink. In a 4-hour service with the heat set at 70, your feet sweat. The second thing is toe jam. That’s right, those little black balls of dirt, sweat, and sock lint that tend to float in the water. Finally, you’ll probably see bunions. I noticed that most of the people who attended the watch night service were old or wore old-looking clothes that smelled like moth balls. Here I was, 1 of the very few kids who was made to attend, and I had to pick up an old person’s feet. That was the first time I had ever seen a bunion. I was a sensitive child, too, but what could I do? When it was over we all prayed-in-the New Year (and I felt bad because I stared at the bunions).

Holy Hugs – Photo Credit: Middlegate Collegiate Church

“These people were our tribe”

There’s another thing about the feet-washing part of the watch night service. After 3 hours of singing, testifying, fellowshipping, washing each other’s feet, and praying, you felt pretty close to each other. During this time of confession to God and prayers of rededication, some worshipped aloud while others prayed silently, but everyone hugged. I could hear crying, but also laughter. The laughter of people who knew where they stood with God and each other. This was love. Suddenly it made sense to me why we called each other “Brother John” or “Sister Mary.” These people were our tribe. In the work-a-day world, these were the ones you could count on in a crisis, in the hospital, or at the funeral home. These were our people.

Ancient Stone Maarker in an Irish Field

“They were signposts that would show me the way”

I watched the adults as they embraced and prayed for one another, and I instinctively knew something. I knew that these were good people: solid Christians. Although they were human and imperfect, they stood like markers for me in the field of the world. They were signposts that would show me the way. And I knew that one day I would be in their shoes, and that just maybe, someone would slip them off and wash my feet too.




About ken Shelton
Ken Shelton is a writer, songwriter, and recording artist. His latest album, 'Legacy-Songs For My Family' is his eighth studio album and is available on all music streaming services. In addition, he is an ordained bishop with Evangel Association of Churches and Ministries, and with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). Ken attended Lee University, Trinity Theological Seminary, and Destiny Christian University and holds a Doctor of Divinity Degree. In 2001, he founded Shelton Covenant Ministries, a church ministry committed to planting churches, and mentoring pastors and church leaders with emphasis on five-fold ministry. He is a frequent conference speaker, worship leader, and soloist. Bishop Shelton has written two books: Covenant Talk - Words That Set Us Free (Author House, 2005) and Discover Your Worship Learning Style (SCM, 2010). In 1974, Ken married the former Kitty Patterson, who since 1997 has been a public-school English and history teacher. They have three daughters and ten grandchildren and reside in Brighton, Michigan. You can read more about the author here.
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