While revelers count down the minutes until midnight, opening champagne to celebrate the new year, many South Orange residents greet 2011 at church. First Baptist Church of South Orange and The Episcopal Church of Saint Andrew & Holy Communion hold Watch Night services, a longstanding tradition.
As Nadeen Richardson of the First Baptist Church explained to Patch last year, "There are different understandings of the practice and purpose of Watch Night, culturally and religiously. Even its origins have a variety of understandings."
Some scholars date Watch Night back to 1741 and credit John Wesley, founder of Methodism with popularizing the service. Wesley was thought to have adapted the practice from the Moravian tradition. At that time, "watchnights" were monthly or quarterly gatherings devoted to watching and praying. According to The Committee on Black Congregational Ministries, the services became especially important after Dec. 31, 1862. In September of that year, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on Jan. 1, freeing Southern slaves. That night was also known as "Freedom's Eve."
Richardson agrees. "Most believe that from the African-American community, Watch Night reflects the evening slaves were set free and stayed watch all night to assure a safe passage in their exodus to freedom as slaves," she explains. "The newly-found freedom itself is understood as divine activity and there was trust in God to protect them in their passage. The history of this account, however, has not been documented and is more of oral tradition."
Richardson describes what churchgoers might find at a Watch Night service. "Typically, our ministry practices Watch Night as a celebration of public and private divine activity in the lives of parishioners and community. It is a glad corporate celebration recognizing God's presence, grace and blessings given in the prior year, economically, politically, spiritually, physically, environmentally and socially. Communal in nature, all are welcomed to gather and to give thanks to God for watching over their lives and offer up prayers for the New Year." The service, which lasts from 10 p.m. until midnight, includes "inspiring praise and worship music, singing of hymns, and a moment of sound Biblical teaching believed to serve as a theme for the New Year."
Richardson explains that, "In faith, the community trusts God and seeks God's guidance and strength for the next 12 months" until Watch Night arrives again, in 2011.
First Baptist Church of South Orange Watch Night Service, New Year's Eve, 10 p.m.
The Episcopal Church of Saint Andrew & Holy Communion invites the public to Watch Night Services on New Year's Eve. At 7pm a vigil for the New Year begins, with prayer and music.
At 8:30 p.m. the Family New Year's Eve Party begins and will include a meal.