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New Year’s Eve Celebrations in the Black Church

by Carolyn Cardwell | Dec 31, 2013
By the Rev. Dr. Lewis Brogdon

Well it is that time again, the end of one year and the beginning of a new year. While many will celebrate the New Year at a party of some kind, many African Americans will bring in the New Year at church. I have spent most of my new year’s mornings in church listening to the saints testify about God’s goodness, singing songs to celebrate how we got over, and hearing the preacher set the tone for a New Year with a sermon that gave meaning to the last year and hope for the new one. I remember my friends often asking me, “What did you do on New Year’s Eve?” I responded, “I went to church.” I can still remember the puzzled looks I received. What my friends didn’t understand was the importance of attending church on New Year’s Eve in the African American community. So I thought I’d blog about this for a few weeks.
Watch Night Services is a practice that goes back to 1862. On that New Year’s Eve, many African Americans gathered in churches to give thanks for the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln that would take effect on January 1, 1863. And for one hundred and fifty one years, African Americans have brought in the New Year in church. However, this practice is not observed because it goes back to the days of slavery. African Americans attending church on New Year’s Eve speaks to the continuing importance of the church as one of the central institutions of the African American community.
The Black Church is still one of the places African Americans go to find meaning and hope as they collectively and individually navigate the challenges of life, many of which are a product of the continuing presence of systemic racism. So when African Americans come to church one of the tasks of the church and particularly preaching is to instill a sense of hope in spite of continuing challenges and hardships. Many blacks repeatedly turn to the church and look to the church to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness and hope amidst a sea of despair. That is one reason watch night services are important because what better time to instill hope than on the night that holds together the difficulties of the past year and promises of the new one. Watch night services place hope, not meaningless suffering, at the center of what we aspire to be and do as a people. Next week I will share insights I have gleaned from pastors in the city of Louisville and wider region about why this is an important practice in the Black Church.


Lewis Brogdon

          Lewis Brogdon is the
          Director of the Black
          Church Studies
          program at
          Louisville Seminary
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