By Ernie Brown
December contains Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and celebrations are set for all of those traditional events.
But one date I look forward to every year is New Year’s Eve, and not for the reason you may think.
My church, and other black congregations, have a special service often referred to as Watch Night.
It is an alternative to the secular events usually associated with New Year’s Eve.
Traditionally, the service starts around 10 p.m. There is a short sermon by the pastor, and then families are encouraged to gather in various parts of the sanctuary to give God thanks and be in prayer as the clock strikes midnight and a new year begins.
This year, at my church, Rising Star Baptist Church, Watch Night will be enhanced with a play performed by church members called “Driving From the Passenger’s Side” at 9 p.m. It is based on the book of the same title written by church Pastor Kenneth M. Donaldson Sr.
The play deals with a young couple’s struggling to keep their family together and for leadership in their home.
When the tradition of Watch Night began is subject to several interpretations.
One thought says it began New Year’s Eve in 1862, with blacks awaiting the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that would end slavery in America. Now we know that did not happen in 1863, as slavery wasn’t officially abolished in this country until passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
A check of the Snopes.com Web site, which seeks to debunk myths and legends, however, says that although many slaves may have gathered to pray and thank God for deliverance from involuntary servitude in 1862, Watch Night did not begin that year.
Snopes says Watch Night actually began with the Moravians, a small Christian denomination whose roots lie in what is now the modern-day Czech Republic, with the first such service taking place in 1773.
The renowned theologian John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, picked up Watch Night from the Moravians and incorporated the service in the Methodist faith.
As to what was being “watched over” in Wesley’s time was one’s covenant with God, according to Snopes. Parishioners gathered to pray and meditate on whether they were ready to meet God if they should die.
The Bible says in Mark Chapter 13 that Christians should ever be vigilant because they don’t know when the Lord will come again to establish his kingdom.
Whatever viewpoint you choose to accept, the fact is Watch Night is one of the holiday options available to folks who choose not to be involved in the usual activities associated with the end of the year.
The cities of Youngstown, Canfield and Salem have what is called First Night, alcohol-free, family-oriented activities that take place on New Year’s Eve. In Youngstown, the activities are set in downtown Youngstown and near Youngstown State University. Check The Vindicator for announcements about First Night planning and the sites for the various entertainment venues.
Some local black churches, however, set aside the last day of the year to encourage their members to come together and thank God for the blessings he provided for the past year and ask for his grace and mercy to continue in the new year.
Some churches even serve breakfast after the special service.
I know there will be parties galore on New Year’s Eve. I ask that you be careful in celebrating the end of an eventful and turbulent 2009.
I think, however, there is no better place to be than in your church and welcoming in the new year in a humble fashion — on your knees in prayer.