Watch Night: A Historic Time of Reflection and Renewal

Learn about the significance and history of New Year’s Eve – also known as Watch Night – and the traditions designed to bring Christians closer to God.

The significance and historic symbolism of New Year’s Eve have been overshadowed in recent years by revelry and broken resolutions. Some in society have even discouraged the tradition of making resolutions, citing studies which tell us that only 8 percent of us keep them, and that resolutions may even be harmful to us![1]

But did you know that the Christian New Year’s Eve church service – also known as Watch Night Service – was created to bring Christians closer to God, and also has very special significance in the African American community?

"Waiting for the hour": Watchnight, 1862. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

“Waiting for the hour”: Watch Night, 1862. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

 

WATCH NIGHT IN HISTORY
The Watch Night Service tradition can be traced back to the Moravians, a Christian denomination from the Czech Republic during the mid-1700’s.[2]
John Wesley, the British founder of the Methodist Church, adopted the Czech practice of celebrating Watch Night, along with other English Puritan principles, when he instituted the Methodist Covenant Renewal Services[3]. These services were started in August of 1755 as a means of creating for Christians a more formalized and personal connection and covenant with God. British Methodism soon developed the custom of holding these Covenant services near the beginning of the New Year. The service was preceded by a period of preparation through prayer, fasting, reflection and self- examination, which has been credited as the modern source of today’s New Year’s Resolution[4]. The singing, prayers of allegiance and gratitude, testimonials, and scripture readings provided Methodist Christians with a Godly alternative to other secular ways of celebrating the day.

In America, however, another tradition was unfolding. In 1770, the first Watch Services were held in America at the St. George’s Methodist Church. Two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were a part of this congregation and they later left the church after being denied the right to pray alongside white worshipers. In 1794, they became the renowned founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.)[5].

The founders of the A.M.E. Church inspired the celebration of a new Watch Night tradition when, on December 31, 1862 – also known as “Freedom’s Eve” – the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in African American communities.
Gatherings  of African American slaves, as well as free blacks, came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. At the stroke of midnight on that day, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy, as many people fell to their knees and thanked God[6].

WATCH NIGHT SERVICE TODAY

Watch Night Services usually begin between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and often end just past midnight. Today, the services may combine praise and worship, testimonies, and prophecy for the year to come, but many African American churches still honor Watch Night’s connection to the abolition of slavery.

Over 150 years has passed since the first “Freedom’s Eve,” and tradition now brings Christians of all colors together for worship and celebration each year. African American Christians have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since 1862, praising God for safe deliverance through another year: but, most importantly, honoring the ancestors’ prayers for a future of freedom and liberty.

Karen Lascaris is a regular contributor to Westa.org. She is the author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African American Traditions, Journeys, and Icons”, published in 2001 by Running Press of Philadelphia.

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References:

[1] Forbes.com, “Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Years Resolutions.  Here’s How They Do It.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/.  Accessed 12/26/2015.

[2] “Watch Night”; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchnight_service, accessed 12-28-2017.

[3] “The Covenant Service”. http://www.methodist.org.uk/who-we-are/what-is-distinctive-about-methodism/a-covenant-with-god/the-covenant-service.  Accessed 12/27/2017.

[4] “Why We Make New Year’s Resolutions”.  LiveScience.com.  http://m.livescience.com/42255-history-of-new-years-resolutions.html, accessed 12-28-15.

[5] “The Official Site of the AME Church”. www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/, accessed 12-28-2017.

[6] “First Watch Night Service Occurs”; The African American Desk Reference,
Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/first-watch-night-service-occurs, accessed 12-28-2017.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Not all Slaves were freed by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Only 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves were freed at that time. Freedom’s Eve was a call to action for all Black Americans; a moral imperative to fight for the full realization of freedom for their brothers and sisters who were still enslaved.
  • All enslaved Africans were freed from chattel slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery on December 18, 1865.
  • In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, the tradition of the late night service is called Midnight Mass or Eucharist.  Like the Watch Night service of the Church of Scotland, it is attended on the night of Christmas Eve.

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Praise the New Year in with West Angeles! Please join Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake, Evangelist Joyce Rodgers, the West Angeles Mass Choir, and other special guests for Watch Night Service on December 31, 2017 at 10:00 PM the West Angeles at the Cathedral, 3600 Crenshaw Boulevard, LA 90016.

Please join us for the Afterglow Breakfast! We’re having breakfast in the Crystal Room immediately following Watch Night Service, 12:30-2:30 a.m. on January 1, 2018. Cost: $10 per person in advance, $12 at the door. West Angeles North Campus, 3045 Crenshaw Boulevard, LA 90016. See you then!

January is Consecration Month. Please join West Angeles Church of God In Christ in fasting in prayer for the month of January, 2018.  Complete guidelines and prayer calendar available in the lobby, and on Westa.org.

Family Time: Christmas Holiday Craft Project

Looking for a meaningful way to spend some of your down time  this Christmas season? Devote it to a Christmas craft project! Crafts are a great way to spend time with loved ones and friends, and it’s also a great way to spend meaningful time with the children in your family.

Ornament-making is a great way to start your own Holiday tradition. Whether you’re spending Christmas with the family, or away from your own loved ones, this is a great activity to take time out to share the Christmas Spirit with those in a women’s shelter or home for the elderly.

 

HAND-MADE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT
Here’s a project that’s simple and enjoyable to do – and a great way to recycle those special Christmas cards you receive each year by making your own keepsake ornaments.            

WHAT YOU’LL NEED:

  • Six (6) Christmas Cards                             
  • Paper or Craft Glue
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Compass (or Drinking Glass)
  • Ribbon


1. Gather all supplies.                                                

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2. Using the compass or glass and your pencil, draw a circle around the area on each of your cards you want to use for your ornament. Cut out all six circles.

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3. Using your ruler, draw a square inside of each circle (make sure the corners of the square touch the edge of the circle). Score, and fold upwards along the edges of each square to create a flap (see photo below).

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4. Glue the back of each flap, and attach five of the circles until the ornament takes shape.

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5. Punch a small hole in the center of the sixth circle. Make a loop with the ribbon and knot underneath. Glue top to remaining flaps.

craft5

 

craft6

You can also adorn and personalize your ornaments with family photographs, glitter, crystals, shells, or other special items.  

As it says in Exodus 31:3-5 (NIV)  –

3 “and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills; 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts” 

Working with our hands by engaging in crafts with loved ones or those in need of cheer during the Christmas season can be our own way to bless God.

                                       

3 Tips for Connecting with Family on Christmas

The Holiday Season is often a time to share with family and loved ones, but for some of us, it is a time when we’re far away from our families, and spending the Holidays alone. But just because you can’t be with your family, it doesn’t mean you can’t connect with them.

Staying Connected to Family

Here are some ways to connect with your family for the Holidays:

1. Sign up for a free Google or Skype account and have them do the same. Skype is a free service that allows you to do a video chat on your computer or phone, and Google provides a service called “Hangouts,” which is also free.

2. Send Christmas cards to your family members in other cities. It may seem small, but a card lets people know that you are thinking of them.

3. Create your own daily videos and send them to your family members via email, or create a free blog to post them to. It will give you and your family something to look forward to every day.

Before recently moving back to Los Angeles, I lived in Washington, DC.  There, I was close to my aunt who I’d normally spend the Holidays with, but this year was the first time in 10 years where I’d be away from her. For a while, it made me sad to think that I would not be with her for Christmas, but the new technology made it easier to stay in touch.

I set up a time with my aunt so I could video chat with her. She was so moved, she started to cry because she couldn’t believe she was actually seeing and talking to me!

If you are away from your family for Christmas, try to connect with them in other ways, like through a video chat or even just a phone call. Use this time as a way to start new traditions and keep in touch with your family members near and far.

Connect with them and let them know that you miss them and love them.

 

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By Loryn Wilson, Contributing Writer for WestA.org