Thursday, December 31, 2009

Watch Night Service

If you live or grew up in a Black community in the United States, you have probably heard of "Watch Night Services," the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year's Eve. The service usually begins anywhere from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. Some folks come to church first, before going to out to celebrate. For others, church is the only New Year's Eve event.Like many others, I always assumed that Watch Night was a fairly standard Christian religious service -- made a bit more Afrocentric because that's what happens when elements of Christianity become linked with the Black Church. And yes, there is a history of Watch Night in the Methodist tradition. Still, it seemed that most predominately

White Christian churches did not include Watch Night services on their calendars, but focused instead on Christmas Eve programs. In fact, there were instances where clergy in Mainline denominations wondered aloud about the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year's Eve. However, in doing some research, I discovered there are two essential reasons for the importance of New Year's Eve services in African American congregations. Many of the Watch Night Services in Black communities that we celebrate today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom's Eve." On that night, Americans of African descent came together in churches, gathering places and private homes throughout the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and according to Lincoln's promise, all slaves in the Confederate States were legally free. People remained in churches and other gathering places, eagerly awaiting word that Emancipation had been declared. When the actual news of freedom was received later that day, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God.

But even before 1962 and the possibility of a Presidential Emancipation, African people had gathered on New Year's Eve on plantations across the South. That is because many owners of enslaved Africans tallied up their business accounts on the first day of each new year. Human property was sold along with land and furnishings to satisfy debts. Families and friends were separated. Often they never saw each other again in this earthly world. Thus coming together on December 31 might be the last time for enslaved and free Africans to be together with loved ones.

So, Black folks in North America have gathered annually on New Year's Eve since the earliest days, praising God for bringing us safely through another year and praying for the future. Certainly, those traditional gatherings were made even more poignant by the events of 1863 which brought freedom to the slaves and the Year of Jubilee. Many generations have passed since and most of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night. Yet our traditions and our faith still bring us together at the end of every year to celebrate once again "how we got over."

Written by Charyn D. Sutton ©
Please contact Charyn Sutton at The Onyx Group if you are interested in a presentation on the history of Watch Night at your school or conference. This essay can be reproduced and used with proper attribution to and permission from Charyn D. Sutton.

There are some who disagree with this opinion.

Watch Night Services Link Past and Future for Blacks

Published: December 31, 2006

NASHVILLE, Dec. 30 — In the anxious countdown to New Year’s Eve, clubs inventory their stockpiles of liquor and champagne, party hosts check and recheck invitation lists, and frantic revelers cast about for the most promising party destinations.
But in many black churches across the country, midnight on Dec. 31 marks the culmination of a far different observance. In a tradition with roots in the Civil War and a nod to the days of slavery, many black Americans spend New Year’s Eve in church sanctuaries, awaiting the arrival of the new year with prayer and song.

“Bring in the new year on your knees — that’s what my mama used to say,” said the Rev. Kenneth W. Forte, the pastor of First Baptist Church Hopewell, which is on the eastern outskirts of Nashville.

Although it is not clear when Watch Night became a tradition within black communities, some historians and theologians say the services were started in connection with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
Watch Night services have their origin far earlier, said Bishop Woodie W. White of the United Methodist Church, who is now bishop-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

In the mid-1700s, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, adopted a 17th-century covenant service to renew religious faith on New Year’s Day, Bishop White said. Those gatherings evolved into Watch Nights.

In Boston, abolitionists including Frederick Douglass gathered on Dec. 31, 1862, to await the Emancipation Proclamation, and some historians say slaves may also have gathered in churches that night. But Bishop White said the services were probably adopted by black churches in the years afterward.

The custom spread throughout black denominations, he said, and its roots in Methodism have been largely forgotten.

Nowadays, Watch Night services can be found in virtually every black community, Bishop White said. He said the gatherings had become so cemented into black spiritual life that attendance at the services could rival that at Christmas and Easter.

“I think probably this particular service unites the African-American community specifically as no other service,” Bishop White said.

This year, Mr. Forte organized a joint service with a neighboring church, Stateland Baptist. He said the services provided black churchgoers with an important bridge between past and future.
“Watch Night services have typically been a powerful part of church heritage,” he said. “For so many people, you grew up in it — you don’t want to get away from something that’s been such a part of history and heritage of the church.”

In preparation for New Year’s Eve, the church choirs held a final rehearsal on Thursday at Stateland. Just before 7 p.m., headlights began turning in the driveway at the church, across the street from a bar with an illuminated marquee advertising “No cover charge Sunday.”
About a dozen choir members took their places on the altar below a wooden cross. A stack of new Watch Night programs lay on the last pew.

During one of the spirituals, Ruby Lester held a microphone for a ringing solo as the choir clapped and swayed around her. Each selection ended with exclamations of “Amen!”
After the rehearsal, Ms. Lester, a Stateland member for 18 years, said there was never a doubt about where she would be in the minutes before midnight on Dec. 31.

“It’s something our foreparents have done,” she said, “and it’s a tradition that we’ve kept going — a tradition that we’re proud of, a tradition that we can pass on to our children, to our grandchildren, and to our great-great-grandchildren. It’s a legacy for us.”
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