Watch Night steeped in tradition and history

Published: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 1:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 1:06 p.m.

Watch Night may have started a long time ago, but the legacy of the tradition of being in a place of worship on New Year's eve is still alive.

On Dec. 31, 1862, millions of enslaved African people in America secretly watched the new year come in with prayer and praises to God, believing they would be freed on Jan. 1, 1863, because of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

And now, 150 years later, after the first so-called "Watch Night" or "Freedom's Eve" services, millions of blacks in America, as well as other Americans, will ring in the new year in worship places by thanking God for getting them through 2012 and praying for a blessed and prosperous 2013.

Churches all around Gainesville will host Watch Night services, and several east Gainesville pastors, along with Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, a lecturer in the African-American Studies Department at the University of Florida, shared their views on the significance of those services.

Hilliard-Nunn said although Watch Night is believed by many to be a tradition originating with the 1862 New Year's eve services held by enslaved Africans in America, there is evidence the practice stems from a time when Africans in the mother land did basically the same thing centuries ago.

"There are different beliefs about how it got started," said Hilliard-Nunn, adding that no matter how it got started, the origins of Watch Night are rooted in the strong spirituality of "Africans and African Americans."

She said the most important aspect of Watch Night as it relates to the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation is that the law only freed slaves in states that rebelled against the Union.

The Rev. Mary Mitchell, pastor at Bartley Temple United Methodist Church, said blacks today must keep the historical significance of Watch Night alive.

"It is important to keep this tradition going because lest we forget where we've been and where we come from, we will end up repeating history," said Mitchell, adding that Bartley Temple will share Watch Night service with Trinity and Mount Pleasant United Methodist churches at 10 p.m. Monday at Mount Pleasant.

"It is even more important to teach our children about the significance of Watch Night."

Pastor Karl "The Rev." Anderson, senior co-pastor of Upper Room Church of God in Christ, said Watch Night services allow people to give God thanks for what he did for them during the prior year.

"The second thing we do is pray for future blessings," Anderson said. "We also pray for God to guide us throughout the new year."

Anderson said Watch Night at Upper Room will begin at 9 p.m. and will feature a car giveaway. The guest speaker will be Dr. Kenny Knight of Refreshing Oasis Church in Woodbine, Ga.

Apostle Willie King Jr., pastor of Showers of Blessings Harvest Center, said Watch Night is a chance for him to launch the vision of the church for the new year. He also said the service attracts a lot of people who are not saved, but want to bring in the new year in church.

"A lot of them go to parties afterward, but the main thing is that they bring the new year in in church," King said. "Those kinds of people are conscious of God, though they may not be ready to get saved. I have had testimonies at my church that once they got inside the house of the Lord, they decide not to go partying."

King said the Watch Night service will begin at 10 p.m. Monday at Showers.

The Rev. Kevin Thorpe, pastor of Faith Baptist Church, said Watch Night is a tradition he remembers from his childhood and something he is continuing at Faith.

"I think it is important to leave one year in church reflecting on how God has blessed us, while entering a new year excited about the blessings God is going to deliver," he said.

Thorpe said Watch Night at Faith will begin at 10 p.m. and the guest speaker will be the Rev. H.B. Charles of Shiloh Metropolitan Church in Jacksonville.

Pastor Crystal Griffin, co-pastor of New Horizon Outreach Ministries, said the significance of Watch Night is that people bring the new year in together "leaving the old things behind and asking God to keep us in the new year."

"A lot of people come to ‘Watch Night' service because they want God to help them start a new life," said Griffin, adding that Watch Night will begin at 9 p.m. at New Horizon. "By 11:30 a.m. we will be on our knees praying, and when the new year come in, we will be seeking the face of God."

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