Embracing New Year Traditions

2 01 2012

Growing up, my family had a tradition on New Years: go to watch night service and then go eat. Whether it was chicken and waffles at the pastors house or a church wide pot-luck, New Years Eve wasn’t complete without some celebration and fellowship among believers.

As a child, this tradition couldn’t get more boring. When I became a teenager I found ways to get out of it by arranging slumber parties with my best friend, Khalilah so that we could watch Boyz II Men on Dick Clark’s Rockin Eve and bring in the new year sniggling and giggling as we always do.

Of course, by the time I got to college and actually became a Christian, watch night service became something I looked forward to. I was quite surprised when I moved to Atlanta and realized that the churches I was attending not only did not have watch night service, but they had never even heard of it. This was weird to me because practically everyone I knew growing up went to watch night or had at least heard of it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with watch night service, it’s usually a very upbeat service where people gather to sing, give testimonies, thank God for making it through the previous year and pray for the next one. In the A.M.E. church, we used to all kneel around the pulpit around 11:50 and recite prayers as we counted down until the new year.

It all made me wonder–is watch night service a black church thing? After all, every predominately black church I’ve ever attended has had one. Every predominately white church I’ve attended has not. Or is it a denominational thing? Well, I did a little research and come to find out, it’s a little of both. Apparently John Wesley started a tradition of watch night within the Methodist church so that the congregation would have an opportunity to renew their commitment to their faith, to testify and sing songs. So I guess that’s why the A.M.E. church still does it and carries on that Methodist tradition. But there is also a history behind the African American embrace of the tradition. At the end of the year, slave owners used to tally their debts and sometimes slaves would be sold as a means to pay off what was owed, and so the slaves did not know if they were going to be separated once the new year came. Watch night service was a time to celebrate the fact that they had made it through one year together, and to wait with anticipation to find out if they would have a chance at another year together. This anticipation was made even greater on December 31, 1862 as slaves awaited the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on January 1. Today, many African American churches still use the service as an opportunity to start their new year off with high expectations.

For the past seven years, since my churches didn’t celebrate watch night, I did what the locals did. I went to parties or I had house gatherings with friends. They were great but these days I long to go back to what I know and find a watch night service. Khalilah and I found one at First Baptist Church of Glenarden and that’s where we’ve been the last two years on New Year’s Eve. Last night we danced in praise to God as the clock struck 12 and I realized that there is no place I’d rather be on New Year’s. So I’m now adopting and embracing that historic tradition as my own. This year I even went the extra mile and carried on the tradition of chicken and waffles, although I had to do it the following day as opposed to immediately after the service like back in the day. Here are some pictures of us ladies enjoying the festivities. Here’s to embracing traditions of the past and making them new! For more information on watch night services, check out this link: http://www.interpretermagazine.org/interior.asp?ptid=43&mid=11612

Happy New Year to one and all!

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