There are no party favors, no paper whistles, no shiny hats for these New  Year's celebrants. They won't be greeting the new year with a Champagne toast  while the ball drops in Times Square.

It will be joyful, but sober, especially during those last 10 minutes when  the preacher stops preaching, the choir quiets down and those who are so  inclined, get down on their knees and pray.

It's called the Watch Night service, a Methodist custom that African  Americans adopted and adapted as a spiritual and political ritual during the  time of slavery. It continues today around the nation and the Bay Area, with  many remembering the most important Watch Night service, that of Dec.  31, 1862.

Skeptical that President Abraham  Lincoln would keep his word about emancipation, African Americans, both free  and slave, as well as abolitionists, prayed through the night and into the day.  Abolitionist and former slave Frederick  Douglass stayed at a church in Rochester, N.Y., until 10 p.m. on New Year's  Day, awaiting a cable that assured him that the law had been passed.

"Our ancestors always believed that they would someday be free," said Lawrence  VanHook, Laney College  adjunct professor of ethnic studies and pastor of Community  Christian Church, "We believed in , our watching in anticipation of what God  would do."

To borrow shamelessly from Dickens, this time of year was the best of times  and the worst of times for slaves. Christmas was the best of times because it  afforded good eating, less work and permission to visit distant relatives and  friends. New Year's Day, also known as "Heartbreak Day," was the worst of times  because slave families anticipated being split up as owners would balance their  books by auctioning off slaves, as well as hogs and horses.

The institution of slavery first showed signs of cracking with the U.S. ban  on slave importation as of 1808. The Civil War brought an official end to the  practice with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862, to be  effective as of Jan. 1, 1863.

In 1862, "there was a lot of politicking and resistance," to Lincoln's plan  to free the slaves, said the Rev. Amos  Brown of San Francisco's Third  Baptist Church. "The slaves decided they would gather and watch through the  night for the expectation of the dawn of a new day."

The Jan. 1 Emancipation celebrations began to die out in the North and far  West at the beginning of the 20th century, but the custom of Watch  Night persists

For some people, it's the only way to bring in the new year. "That's been my  party for 61 years," says Pastor  Ron Thomas, 61, of the Prayer  Tower Church in Oakland. "We're praying out the old year, praying in  the new."

"Watch Night, like all worship, is sacrifice," says Third Baptist Church  administrator Sharon  Haynes. "The significance is just thanking God for getting  us through."

But in those perilous times that gave birth to Watch Night, gathering for was also  accompanied by to know how to navigate the changes. For each new law passed -  from the abolition of the slave trade, to the fugitive slave laws and, finally,  Emancipation, the year's start was when they determined a response to  the news.

This year, the greatest good news to befall the African American community  since the end of slavery came early: the election of Barack  Obama as president of the United States.

"To make a parallel, (election night) was a lot like Watch Night," VanHook  said. "We watched and we waited. We weren't sure he would win. So we watched to  be sure."

And watching is not enough. "On the heels of Obama's  election," VanHook said, "How do we respond? That's our assignment."

Taking his cue from the old Emancipation Day celebrations, VanHook is  sponsoring "Witness to a New Day" a New Year's Day forum featuring Rep. Barbara  Lee, to speak to the issues of the nation, and Alameda County Supervisor Keith  Carson, to the state of the community.

Brown, who is planning a traditional Watch Night service, is cautiously  optimistic about the significance of the election of an African  American president.

The gap between dream and reality for African Americans since 1863 is still  here, he says. "The masses of black people have not met the fulfillment of  dreams prayed for on that Watch Night," he said, referring to Dec. 31, 1862.  "Mr. Obama's presidency can go no higher in our agenda than the nation permits  him to go."

Although Pastor  Dion Evans of Chosen  Vessels Christian Church in Alameda will use what he calls a combination of  new-school and old-school prayer style when it comes to his own service, he is  saddened that so few people are aware of the "Emancipation piece." Knowledge of  "history is important for any people to succeed," he said. "(Watch Night) ties  New Year into our accomplishments in the history of this country."


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