The legacy of watchnight services
“At the time, enslaved black people could find little respite from ever-present surveillance, even in practising their faith.” – National Museum of African American History and Culture
The legacies of the transatlantic slave trade continue to reverberate decades after the abolition of slavery. The United Nations states that the enslavement of over 13 million Africans during the transatlantic slave trade was driven by the racist ideology that these women, men, and children were inferior because of the colour of their skin.
The African Holocaust or Maafa involved numerous European powers, such as England, Spain, Denmark, and The Netherlands, who were all responsible for the trafficking of our ancestors. In the British West Indies the slavery system was referred to as chattel slavery. This was a system wherein the slaves and their offspring were enslaved during their lifetime and were the sole property of the owner. The slaves were bought and sold as commodities.
Thank God we made it!
It is that time again when end-of-year activities take centre stage. For the revellers among us, attending a New Year’s Eve ball is the ultimate way to usher in the new year. While for the more religious-minded among us, there is no better way to ring in the new year than to be in the house of God for watchnight service. Indeed attending church has become a tradition for many families in Jamaica and the Americas. However, very few of us have ever questioned the antecedents behind such an observation.
Regrettably, fewer folks have taken the time to read about the struggles of black people. The tradition of watchnight services in the United States of America dates back to December 31, 1862 when many black Americans gathered in churches and other venues waiting for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law, and therefore free those who were still enslaved in the confederacy.
Watchnight services have evolved into an annual New Year’s Eve tradition which not only commemorates freedom from slavery, but also celebrates the importance of faith, community, and perseverance. It is a tradition in the black Church in America that five minutes before midnight, men, women and children will kneel, hold hands, and pray to God from the present year into the new year.
Undoubtedly, a watchnight service is time of reflection. African American Christians engage in their prayer posture and will reflect upon the fact that approximately 11 million Africans were enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade, where 10 per cent to 20 per cent of them died on the slave ships, and the exact number of enslaved black children, women, and men killed or died during slavery will never be known.
It is noted that the watchnight worship services were traditionally followed by a meal on New Year’s Day, often featuring a dish called Hoppin’ John. Traditionally, Hoppin John’ consists of black-eyed peas, rice, red peppers, and salt pork, and it is believed to bring good fortune to those who eat it.
Happy New Year.