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The saints will tell you: as one year turns into another, there’s simply no better place to be. A number of black churches throughout the city will open their doors for the long-held tradition of Watch Night, the service where worshippers count down and celebrate the new year together.
For many millennials and churched-up blacks, Watch Night is more than a righteous spot on the calendar. It presents a choice, with loaded connotations. Start times for Watch Night services vary, many begin around 10 p.m. And typically, they don’t linger too long past midnight. Service, the scene… or both?
Jay Shaw II, who is a member at Monumental Baptist Church in West Philly, opted to do both for a few years, starting when was around 19. He’s 32 now.
“It was tradition for my family,” he explained. As he grew into a young man, his mother knew he wanted to go out too. “My mother’s words were ‘Get home before sunrise and stay out of trouble.’”
He’d be there for church, stick around a bit if there were refreshments, “then roll out and go to whoever’s house.” After the house party, maybe he’d even grab breakfast with friends before sliding home. “I was trying to walk that fine line— giving honor to God and being human at the same time,” he said.
Courtney Williams-Stotts, a friend of mine and pastor’s daughter, has noticed that more younger twentysomethings in her church aren’t stretching their schedules to praise first and party later.
“I think they feel the pressure [to be in church] but it is different. They have more freedom,” she said in a text. Williams-Stotts is the young adult choir director at Nazarene Baptist Church, in North Philly. “I think we did [a lot] because there was more of a requirement and accountability when it came to church, so to ease our conscience and to show God we loved him, we did both.”
Through-midnight church meetings are not unique to the black church. Some experts point to the early years of Methodism as the origin of such services, and reporters have noted that a range of cultures observe New Year’s Eve in houses of worship. It holds deep significance for African-Americans, though. The first black church Watch Night is believed to have occurred at the end of 1862, as blacks gathered in “jubilees” to await the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln issued it on January 1, 1863. A common story is that slaves came together that night, but some historians have noted that it was highly popular with freed blacks in particular. Frederick Douglass went to service with fellow abolitionists in Boston, for example.
“Watch Night services have typically been a powerful part of church heritage,” one Baptist pastor explained to the New York Times. “For so many people, you grew up in it — you don’t want to get away from something that’s been such a part of history and heritage of the church.”
It’s not ubiquitous across congregations— not all black churches offer it. Prominent larger ones often do. Bright Hope, Enon, Mother Bethel; that’s a yes for all three. Marquita Scott isn’t quite sure if she’ll be attending service tonight, but if she does, it’ll be at Sharon Baptist Church, near Wynnefield.
“Last year I went to church; year before that, I went downtown,” she said. “It goes back and forth.”
Scott doesn’t do both in one night. She picks one.
“It’s kind of hard to find a good [NYE event] that’s not overpriced,” she explained. After budgeting for a hefty cover, not to mention other holiday expenses that appear, revelers rush to clubs early to ensure they’ll get in the before the venue hits capacity. “Some of the tickets are like $150 … You really don’t get anything out of it.”
If she can’t find a suitable option, she’ll go to church, like she was raised. “But if one of my friends is doing something else that seems worthwhile, I’m willing to skip church for that,” she said.
Shaw only goes to service on NYE now. Before, though, he said he didn’t really drink that much when he went partying after: “Leaving the church, that and the fear of dying, would make me be more responsible.”
Still, he felt conflicted. He didn’t like feeling like he should be binge drinking. He didn’t like the peer pressure. He’s not a fan of this more generally, beyond a New Year’s Eve context. Questions on aspects of NYE parties that he didn’t like elicited responses on the nature of American society. Tonight, he’ll be going to service at Monumental, then heading home. When he’s there, he’ll maybe “pop a bottle of champagne of sip with whoever’s with me or whatnot.”
He reflected, “When I was young, I was just young and wild and ignorant I guess. The older, more mature me would be like, ‘No that’s not right. There’s no half and half.’”
Scott said going to church is the “natural” choice, but doesn’t feel so torn. “I don’t ever feel pressured to pick one or the other,” she said. “Church is always there every year. Other stuff going on, maybe not.”