A few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2018 unofficially arrived at the edge of a church cemetery in Elizabethtown.
As a lighted star was hoisted up a flagpole, the numbers “2018” lit up at the pole’s base. A DJ played “Auld Lang Syne,” while several dozen hardy souls in cardboard New Year’s Eve hats braved temperatures in the teens to stand in the snow and blow into noisemakers.
It was the culmination of Welcome 2018, the fourth annual four-hour New Year’s Eve event run by Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church on Elizabethtown’s East High Street.
The star is raised each year at 7 p.m. on New Year’s Eve in order to coincide with midnight in Letterkenny, Ireland, Elizabethtown’s sister city.
The early star-raising, which Christ Lutheran’s Pastor A.J. Domines said represents the Star of Bethlehem, also suits the schedules of families with young children.
“It allows families to celebrate, and then go home and put the kids to bed,” the pastor’s wife, Celia Domines, said.
Despite frigid temperatures, the event drew a few hundred people to the church building and grounds, and to a nearby museum, to play bingo and other games, do kids crafts and chow down on hot dogs and hot chocolate.
“I think we had about 400 to 500 people, including the people who just came to eat,” said Phil Clark, who oversees the event. Clark suggested the cold weather kept some people indoors Sunday afternoon and evening.
Illuminated by portable light standards in the church parking lot, a group of young adults braved the cold to toss beanbags into a cornhole frame.
Boy Scouts of the church-sponsored Troop 1 were running the games, said Scout Committee Chair Eric Lutz, though the cold weather kept these outdoor games sporadic and short.
Bundled-up volunteer Craig Madonna tended a campfire in the parking lot, where attendees could make s’mores.
It was warm in the A-frame lodge building behind the church, where congregation member Greg Hitz was drawing colorful bingo balls out of a tube and calling out the numbers.
“It’s been busy all day,” Hitz said. “There were times when there were no seats left.” Bingo players were vying for prizes including board games, either bought by the church or donated by local businesses, Hitz said.
“It’s so much fun,” Nancy Pinter said of the church’s event, as she and her granddaughter, Emma Rose Pinter, 5, took their seats in the bingo hall.
Pinter said she is renting a house in Elizabethtown from a church member, who called her from Alabama to make sure she knew about the New Year’s Eve activities.
This was the second year the Winters Heritage House Museum, located in two 18th-century houses down the block, served as another venue for the church’s New Year’s Eve event.
Over a crackling fire in the museum’s large fireplace, volunteer Doris Risser of Elizabethtown was doing a colonial-era cooking demonstration – making gingerbread in a cast-iron Dutch oven, cooking a whole chicken hanging on a string, and preparing potatoes and a sausage and apple dish.
In an adjoining room, Jodi Baker of Mount Joy and other volunteers helped children make earmuff-wearing snowmen out of cardboard toilet paper rolls at the kids’ craft table.
New Year’s Eve “is another way for the church to bring the community together, to incorporate the community and the local businesses that provided things for the event,” Baker said.
Back in 2014, after Elizabethtown stopped holding its annual New Year’s Eve event, Clark came to the pastor and suggested the church do its own event to welcome in 2015.
While Domines was initially hesitant for the church to take on the entire event, he’s now glad the church holds the annual observance.
“He (Clark) was right,” Domines said. “It’s an opportunity to reach out to the community, especially the youth and the elderly.”
Clark started out the event in a propane heater-warmed tent off the church parking lot, where barbecue chicken dinners were sold and free hot chocolate and popcorn helped those attending ward off the cold.
“I think it’s a little slower than usual,” Vicki Yaider, a member of the event’s organizing committee, said as she helped sell the 220 or so chicken dinners bought at the event.
The church bought 400 chicken dinners from Kauffman’s Barbecue of Bethel. Dinners not sold at the event will be donated to shelters for the homeless, Yaider said.
The church basement was filled with chatter and laughter, as chilly folks doffed their bulky jackets, gloves and hats to sit around tables, socializing and eating.
In addition to their chicken dinners, those attending dined on bowls of tomato basil and chicken gnocci soup, made by church members Bonnie Balmer and Pam Madonna, respectively, along with cookies and free hot dogs for the kids.
Daniel and Jessica Gulnac, who were returning to their hometown for New Year’s Eve from Aston, Delaware County, were enjoying chicken and hot dogs with other family members before taking their children Lydia, 8, and Madilyn, 5, to the museum.
“The kids like the crafts,” Jessica Gulnac said, “and we like that it’s a family friendly event.”
Over a bowl of soup at one of the tables, a woman who declined to give her name said she had come to the church with her kids because they are staying at a local homeless shelter. The event offered a place to come get warm and have a hot meal, she said.
Volunteer Jeanette Thomas, who was helping serve the meals, said she was happy so many people could meet and socialize over the food.
At the end of the evening, as the crowd finished snapping family pictures in front of the flagpole with its risen star, “Happy Trails” played over the loudspeakers in the parking lot.
Several frozen families rushed to their cars to go home, get warm and, perhaps, celebrate 2018 again at midnight.