Where I Come From
Watching and Waiting
Published: December 29, 2010
At this very moment, some unfathomably large percentage of the world’s population is thinking about what they’ll be doing and whom they’ll be kissing on New Year’s Eve, a holiday that is, unfortunately, largely wasted on me. I don’t drink, I hate large crowds, and I’m so practical that I usually buckle my seatbelt even when I’m in the back of the car. Who does that? So, basically, come midnight this Friday, you won’t exactly find me howling at the moon.
But things weren’t always this way. Growing up, I too rang in the new year with frenetic dancing, shouting, and masses of people. The only difference was that my party happened in church.
Marking the safe passage from one year into another with prayer and praise is a long-running tradition for many African-Americans. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when blacks left the discrimination they encountered in the Methodist church to form their own African Methodist Episcopalian denomination, end-of-year “covenant renewal services” were one practice they took with them. Worshipping at midnight on New Year’s Eve may have been reinforced by Freedom’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1862, as African-Americans and white abolitionists held vigil, anxious to see if Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would indeed take effect on New Year’s Day, 1863. Today, many black churches refer to those last charged hours before the final midnight on the calendar as “watch night.”
I knew nothing of this history as a child. I just knew that our regular Sunday services were festive and watch night was even more so. We started around 10 p.m. with a few low-key songs and picked up steam before the choir all but blew the roof off. By the time the preacher began his sermon, you were ready. He walked us through the trials and tribulations we’d all faced during the last 364 days and showed us how they paralleled the struggles of a figure in the Bible. The apostle Paul was a good example. Some Roman was always slapping him around, but he just kept “press[ing] toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God” (Philippians 3:14). Our troubles had been foretold. They were clearly spelled out in scripture. But more importantly, our deliverance had been guaranteed too.
People outside of these four walls, my pastor would say, were having the time of their lives that night and they didn’t even know Jesus. We did, which was all the more reason to celebrate. Men ran around the church. Women danced hard enough to stomp a hole in the ground, and at midnight, the whole place just roared.
As you drove back home to your rowhouse sandwiched between two condemned properties or the ground-level apartment with the bars on the windows, you never felt so happy to be alive. We needed that party. The inspiration propelled us through a lot of hard days ahead. Almost 150 years after emancipation, New Year’s Eve still promised freedom.
My last watch night service was about 10 years ago. I practically grew up in one West Baltimore church, my family driving across town to get there, before a falling out between my parents and our pastor left us without a church home. I went back to the congregation I knew during college but soon became disillusioned. For my entire life, just about every Sunday’s sermon was some variation on the theme of transformation or renewal, but it seemed that, during my several years away from that church, very little had changed. We still occupied what was once a moviehouse on the southern end of a shopping center in a troubled neighborhood. But as I now saw it, we came in from around the city to sing and dance ourselves happy while people in the surrounding community—the type of people you wouldn’t see on watch night—suffered even more than we did. This wasn’t transformation. This was cheerleading directed at no one but ourselves.
I haven’t been a consistent presence at any church since. Instead, like a lot of people, I’m convinced that God and I have some special understanding, that He mostly approves of the way I live my life, and that more often than not, I inch a little closer to accomplishing whatever work I was put here to do.
After ringing in the new year in church all those years and braving the traditional party crowds once or twice, my favorite end-of-year celebration was my simplest so far. Five years ago, I decided to stay in. Flipping through TV channels, I saw a countdown of the funniest commercials of 2005 from around the world. Honestly, what is it about Scandinavians and mishaps with fish? They get me every time. I laughed myself into stomach cramps on and off for about two hours then switched stations to watch the ball drop in Times Square. It wasn’t what I was used to, but somehow, it seemed fitting. There on my couch, far from the faithful and the inebriated alike, I greeted the new year hopeful, sober, and alone.
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