I've always found it fascinating and refreshing. It was a tradition that I continued when I became a pastor, eventually holding joint services with him and alternating sites between his church and mine.
While there are varying explanations for the origin of the Watch Nite tradition, the history is pretty interesting.
"The Watch Night Services in the Black communities we celebrate today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as 'Freedom's Eve.' On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God.
Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year's Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year."
In our churches Watch Night is a time for church members to gather, usually about 10:00 p.m. and bring in the New Year with songs, testimonies, prayers and preaching. Personally, I looked forward to it, because although it is a pretty informal worship time, it is a wonderful time of reflection and anticipation. It is a reminder that the passage of time is something that really is beyond our control.
We remember the people who were with us the previous Watch Night who have passed on, and we are reminded of the vulnerability of life - its near arbitrariness. But it is also a reminder that in the midst of this apparent arbitrariness life is, paradoxically, controlled by Someone greater than ourselves. Our very presence on that night, gives testimony to the fact that our journey throughout the year wasn't in our hands. The predisposition that some of us have toward that faith perspective may be superstitious to some, but for many of us, it is not enough to ascribe our survival and successes as the luck of the draw. Even our concrete efforts to help make this world a more just place is colored by our trust in the Good Will of God toward each of us and all of us.
Those old slaves who celebrated the first Watch Night, didn't see an act of political courage, or a public policy initiative, in their liberation, they saw the Hand of God ending the long and terrible night of bondage in a land that had been so cruel to them. They saw Lincoln's executive order was an eternal decree on their behalf. In ways far more sincere than we are when we refer to natural disasters as 'acts of God', they saw the New Year's freedom as an act of God! They saw God as providing them a future, instead of another day in which they had to be resigned to their fate.
So this Watch Night I'll be preaching, as I almost always have. I'll be with a group of believers who have much to celebrate, much to grieve, much to be glad to leave behind, much to look forward to and we'll all be grateful to see another year. It won't matter what shape we're in, or how tough 2008 has been, we will see the passing year and the coming year as gifts from a Loving God, Who once more has given us the opportunity to make the passage of time a joyful future, instead of a fate to which we must become reconciled.
However you bring in the New Year, I wish you and yours a wonderful one!