Saturday, January 03, 2009

watch night and freedom eve

i can't ever remember not going to church on new year's eve when i lived down south. even now as a southern stranger in a northern strange land, it feels more than just a little odd when i don't make my way home to pray through the new year, surrounded by loved ones. the church that i attend doesn't have a new year's eve service, probably because of its proximity to times square. i would go to black churches that i knew of in brooklyn or queens or even harlem but once i settled into the ghetto, my big brothers made it plain that i was never to leave the house on certain nights of the year -- and after awhile, what they insisted upon became one of my city rules to live by, because it made a lot of sense. new year's eve was definitely one of those nights.

i spent this new year's eve with my friend and Grandma the Clown at Big Apple Circus (sooooo fun!) but waking up on new year's day and hearing the news reports of how many people got murdered in the tri-state area the night before was sobering enough to fill me with even more "stay home on new year's eve" resolve than ever -- at least, while i'm up here. i don't care how clean and safe they say new york city is. i don't care if they do turn times square into disneyland. i don't care how low the murder and crime rates drop, or how comfortable they make this place. it's still new york city. praying through the new year was something i did when i went home.

i didn't know that this tradition had a name. it was simply something that our entire family had always done, ever since anyone could remember.

so imagine my surprise when my friend shows me an article in the New York Times about the history of this african-american time-honored tradition, and why it resonates so deeply for so many of us black folk this year. although he is white with southern roots on his father's side of his family, he grew up in new jersey and had never heard of anyone going to church and praying through new year's eve until i suggested it.

it's important to note that according to, the definition of watch night is "a religious service held on new year's eve" and that there are many churches in this country who have services on this night. in fact, it was john wesley, founder of the methodist church, who started watch night services in america. and he got it from the moravians -- a small christian sect from the czech republic (bohemia, actually) that held the very first watch night in germany, 1733. the idea was to pray that God watches over everyone's souls into the new year. however -- that long wait in 1862 by so many for word from abraham lincoln on the last day of the year to confirm that he had emancipated millions of slaves all over the country gave watch night an entirely different meaning, one that black folks have embraced ever since.

here's an exerpt from the article in the Times:

Though barely known to most white Americans, Watch Night as observed in black churches holds a place among the highest holy days, surpassed only by Easter and Christmas. Originally an 18th-century Methodist addition to the calendar — and still observed in many Christian denominations — its special significance in the black religious tradition was cemented by its link to the New Year's Eve of 1862, when free blacks and abolitionists gathered to pray that President Abraham Lincoln would carry out his promise to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

to read more, click here.

1 comment:

Kevin R. Free said...

Thanks, Queen Esther!

I grew up a Methodist; I forwarded this to my whole family.

Happy New Year.