What is traditionally a time of drinking and dancing for many is a time of devotion and dedication for those who annually attend Watch Night services to bring in the New Year.
Many in The T&D Region, particularly African-Americans, will be celebrating the arrival of 2018 with prayers, songs and testimonials at the centuries-old Watch Night services.
"I've been pastoring 20-plus years, and it has grown significantly from my experience. It has taken on a new type of spirit. It's a time of thanksgiving, praise, rejoicing, expectation and just giving God thanks for bringing us from one year to another year," said Rev. Stanley Rivers, pastor of Williams Chapel AME Church in Orangeburg, about Watch Night services.
Services at Williams Chapel AME Church will begin at 10:30 p.m. New Year's Eve.
Watch Night was first celebrated by slaves, with the services often lasting until the dawn of the brand new year. It was the culmination of a week-long gathering that began on Christmas Eve when some planters allowed their slaves to celebrate with neighboring family and friends. The special week would come to an end with a New Year's Eve vigil that began early in the evening in a church or praise house and featured songs, prayers and a "watchman."
In the midst of prayers and songs, the watchman would be asked what time it was, and he would tell the congregation the time.
The services are also a time of reflection and testimonials, which were started in connection with President Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Slaves would go to church on New Year's Eve and pray the new year in with an expectation that the proclamation would be honored by the government and become effective.
"They gathered together Dec. 31, 1862, and they prayed they would be emancipated. And 150 years later, we are still going through the ritual of Watch Night service. So it's a tradition, but I think it's now become a part of the black culture, where young and old alike are taking part in this worship experience," Rivers said.
Williams Chapel's service features devotion, testimonials and prayer, he said.
"Then the pastor will get up and give an inspirational message. At about 11:45 p.m or 11:50 p.m., we all go on our knees and just start praising and thanking God for bringing us up to another year," Rivers said. "What has been a tradition over the last 150 years is the watchman."
Rev. Hope Rivers, pastor of Macedonia AME Church in Cope, said Watch Night is a time for parishioners, particularly African-Americans, to reflect upon their history and to give thanks to God for leading them up to another year.
"We gather on that one fateful night to celebrate when we became free and to just thank God for how good he has been to us that each year we get to live in this freedom. We still celebrate God as a part of our tradition," she said. Services at Macedonia AME Church will begin at 10 p.m.
"We do a full worship service. About a few minutes before the midnight hour hits, we do what we call a 'watchman call.' We put people on their knees, guide people through prayer and have the watchman to call the hour down until 12 (midnight) before bringing in the new year," Rivers said.
She added, "We hope that people will strive to know why we celebrate Watch Night service, but also that they have a closer walk with the Lord.
"As I tell my parishioners, we want to know God so that we can make him known to others. So that's what I hope that people gather at the church for."
The Rev. Monroe Danley Jr., pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in North, said his congregation will hold a joint service with St. Mark United Methodist Church in North at 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
Watch Night service should be a time of thanksgiving just as it was centuries ago through songs, prayers and testimonials, Danley said.
"We're just carrying forward that thankfulness into the present age. When you hear somebody else talk about how good God has been, that should strike every one of us to say, 'You know, God has been mighty good to me, and I need to tighten up on my back stroke and do a little better, too,'" he said.
"It was our forefathers and mothers who went through so much. What they went through wasn't easy. If they didn't have God on their side and didn't thank him for continuing to keep them, where would be today? You have to think of that as well."
Danley said God has brought him a long way from his humble beginnings growing up in the Hollow Creek area of Aiken County. He said he will take time to give thanks for that at Watch Night.
"I'm just praying for a greater year to come. I'm asking the Lord to help me get myself together where I can help somebody else along the way," he said.
The Rev. Todd A. Brown, pastor of New Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Orangeburg, said, "It still, in some aspects, has that flavor from how it originally started in that when we gather together on Watch Night, what we're really doing is celebrating that the Lord has seen us through another year with great anticipation of what the Lord will do in the upcoming year."
New Mt. Zion Baptist Church will hold its service from 7 to 8:30 p.m. New Year's Eve.
"This year I wanted to do something a little bit different. We're having worship actually at 7 p.m. and then after the worship service, we're just gonna have fellowship time," Brown said.
While the time may be earlier than traditional Watch Night services, the premise is the same, he said.
"We're celebrating how, through all of the hits we've taken in life, we're still here," Brown said. "So because we're still here, that means that there's hope and opportunity for God to turn some things around."