Watch Night Services Link Past and Future for Blacks

NASHVILLE, Dec. 30 — In the anxious countdown to New Year’s Eve, clubs inventory their stockpiles of liquor and champagne, party hosts check and recheck invitation lists, and frantic revelers cast about for the most promising party destinations.

But in many black churches across the country, midnight on Dec. 31 marks the culmination of a far different observance. In a tradition with roots in the Civil War and a nod to the days of slavery, many black Americans spend New Year’s Eve in church sanctuaries, awaiting the arrival of the new year with prayer and song.

“Bring in the new year on your knees — that’s what my mama used to say,” said the Rev. Kenneth W. Forte, the pastor of First Baptist Church Hopewell, which is on the eastern outskirts of Nashville.

Although it is not clear when Watch Night became a tradition within black communities, some historians and theologians say the services were started in connection with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

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