It’s a tradition that many Presbyterian churches don’t follow – but one with a strong theological vision. While many folks celebrate New Year’s Eve with champagne and parties, or an evening around the TV with a bowl of popcorn, some Christians choose to wave in the New Year at church.
The tradition of Watch Night services – often with joyful music and plenty of prayer – is particularly strong among African Americans, some of whom would not consider celebrating New Year’s Eve anywhere but at church.
And at least a few Presbyterian congregations are joining in too.
Ron Scates, pastor of Highland Park Church in Dallas, grew up attending Watch Night services every year. He decided, when he entered the ministry, that “if I’m ever a senior pastor, I’m going to have one wherever I go.”
So in the more than eight years he’s been at Highland Park, Scates has planned a candlelight Watch Night service every year. At the front of the church he places a candelabrum with 12 candles. As he lights each one – one for each month of the year – he recounts the major events in the life of the congregation for that month, such as mission trips or baptisms.
And he watches the time carefully, to make sure that Communion is being served as the clock strikes midnight. He intentionally pauses the service at that point, to say, “We’ve just crossed into a new year.” It means a lot, to him and to others, that “we start the new year around the Lord’s Table.”
For the service, “I pick hymns that really stress the sovereignty of God,” Scates said. “People have a little fear and trepidation going into a new year. The underlying theme of all of our Watch Night services is that God holds this new year in His hand. He’s going to be with us, no matter what happens – in good times, in bad times.”
The history of Watch Night services is a little unclear. While some tie the tradition to the end of slavery – to blacks holding vigil on Dec. 31, 1862 for the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect the next day – the custom likely predates that.
There is evidence of John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist stream of Protestantism, emphasizing in the mid-1700s the idea of holding services on New Year’s Eve for Christians to renew their covenant with God.
“On this night, we take stock of what happened in the past year and look forward to the next,” wrote Liwliwa Robledo, a deaconess in the Methodist church. “As we do so as Christians, let us also take stock of our call. Are we any wiser? Are we filled with regrets? When we reflect on our past, we discover that everything that happened was part of our call.”
But New Year’s Eve in 1862 – known as “Freedom’s Eve” – was exuberant and special, with people gathering in churches and homes for the announcement that slaves in the Confederate states would now be free.
Somerset Church in Somerset, N. J., a congregation of about 160, held its first Watch Night service last year, at the suggestion of an elder who was formerly a Methodist.
The elder pointed out that some folks in the church, particularly senior citizens, don’t go out to parties on New Year’s Eve, said Sharon Culley, the congregation’s pastor. “It’s a lonely night for many people,” she said.
And Culley remembered how welcoming the congregation’s candlelight Christmas Eve service has felt to her – “you left there feeling the spirit of Christ at Christmas.”
So at the elder’s suggestion, they planned a special Watch Night evening, starting with a time of refreshments and fellowship. At 11 p.m., they moved into the sanctuary for a service with prayers and music.
People “shared testimonies about the previous year, the year we had gone through, about God’s goodness,” Culley said, “and then prayers for the year to come. And right before the clock struck 12, we asked the congregation if there was anything they wanted to leave behind in 2007. So they wrote down things they did not wish to take into the new year” – things such as illness, broken relationships, joblessness and pain.
Those scraps of paper were put into a container and burned.
And, following an old tradition, “we had a watchman on the wall,” Culley said.
She called out, at 11:45 p.m., “Watchman, watchman on the wall! What does the hour mean?”
In reply, “the watchman would say, `It’s quarter to 12, and all is well.”
Next came more prayers, more singing, another call or two to the watchman.
And at midnight, the watchman called out the time, saying, “Thank God for the new year.”
Because some older people prefer not to drive at night, the Somerset church set up a buddy system to offer rides to those who wanted them – the same system used for the Christmas candlelight service just a week earlier.
The service went so well, Culley said, that a second annual service will be held this year.
While the Watch Night tradition may not have started with African Americans, “I think it was something that was adopted within the African American tradition of faith in God,” she said. In slavery, “that’s all that they had. They had been praying, similar to when the Israelites were in Egypt, praying to God for freedom. That’s all they had, was the hope that one day, God would release them. Likewise that was the hope the slaves held on to, and it came.”
Daniel Deffenbaugh, an associate professor of religion at Hastings College in Nebraska, has thought about how Watch Night fits more broadly into the idea of keeping time by a liturgical calendar, not a secular one.
He likes the idea of considering a Watch Night observance right before the start of Advent – after Christ the King Sunday and before the first Sunday of Advent.
In an interview, Deffenbaugh said his interest is in “trying to introduce into the church new rituals that will give lay people a sense of the church calendar versus the secular calendar.”
Deffenbaugh wrote in his blog last January that “I have always had a deep respect for the way that Jews are able to renew their commitments to each other and to God over a ten-day period – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – and thus start their year with a clean spiritual slate. Sure, we in secular America make our New Year’s resolutions, but these always seem so flat and incidental without the kind of meaningful mythological context that religion can provide.”
In the interview, Deffenbaugh said the time right after Christ the King Sunday makes sense to him, as a sort of Christian New Year.
“Rituals connect people with a larger narrative, with a grand narrative,” he said.
“I’ve always felt there was something lacking in Christianity in which we didn’t recognize the coming of a new year, a time to kind of wipe the slate clean. I guess we kind of do it around Easter,” with the introspective season of Lent.
But he’s suggesting a different time frame, in that window of time between Christ the King and Advent, in between “where Christ is exalted and Christ is in the manger. You have the time to reflect on the wide range of human experience between exultation and humility.”