“We must continue to go forward as one people, as brothers and sisters.” ~ John Lewis.
Seeing in the New Year in my childhood meant you went to church. There were no New Year’s Eve parties, no huge ball dropping in Times Square, no fireworks or worse, gun shots in the night. There was the Watchnight service. It would start (if I remember correctly) at 11:30 pm, and end around 12:30 am. So the service started in one year and ended the next.
For kids, the desire to go to church on New Year’s Eve would be merely to be able to say you had stayed up past midnight. When you grow up in an island like Jamaica, especially in the countryside, early to bed and early to rise was the philosophy. In the Tropics dusk falls early, and if you have no TV, there is not much to do once night falls. Homework, of course, but I often found it easier to get up before dawn, in the cool morning hours to study in the quiet, before the world woke up.
Watchnight services are not a typical practice in all Christian denominations. It was not one which we were aware of before we moved to Jamaica. And from what I remember, it was focused on remembering all the lives lost in the previous twelve months. There may have been a ‘roll call’ of those who had died, or just moments of silence, but there would also be hymns and scripture readings. To be honest, I don’t remember many details. I suspect I was just happy for an excuse to be sitting with my friends in the cool night, the excitement of the Christmas Holidays still casting its glow over everything. There was one year when I was too exhausted to stay up for ‘Watchnight’ – I had spent the day riding my friend’s brother’s bicycle on the rocky roads of Wood Hall. I was bounced and bruised and fell asleep as soon as I got home, waking up in the early hours of the new year, Watchnight had passed me by.
I have read recently, and for a caveat, this may or may not be true, since much of what we read on social media has unverified sources, that the Watchnight service originated with emancipation proclamation, the promise of the ‘freeing’ of the slaves, which took place in the US on the 1st of January, 1863. Those enslaved sat in the churches on that ‘Old Year’s Night’ (as some West Indians call the Eve of the New Year) of 1862, watching for the dawn of that new day, that promise of new beginnings.
But it gives me joy to think that this origin story could be true, that those who attend Watchnight services sit in wait still, hopeful for new possibilities, sitting in the company of the ancestors, of those dragged from their homes and forced into slavery (if they survived), whose children are still living in the shadow of those inhuman practices.
In my working life, for many years I spent New Year’s Eve working, on the overnight shift. Hospital workers don’t get long vacations over the Christmas/New Year period. Usually you get to choose 2 out of the 4 days for your ‘holidays’, either Christmas or New Year. In some cases, you have to take the opposite of what you had the year before. Sometimes it balances out: the parents choose to be off for Christmas with the kids, while those without children need to be off to party in the New Year. Those of us who worked in the New Year were usually too distracted to notice the moment the calendar changed. Patients could not be relied upon to be stable at the stroke of midnight.
I can still remember the anticipation of the rumored catastrophe that Y2K would bring. Planes would drop from the sky; all the computers would crash; perhaps the cardiac monitors would stop recording rhythm changes of critical patients. Would our computerized world be able to cope with changing the date from 1999 to 2000? Fortunately, most of those of us working that night were distracted by the usual challenges of working the ‘graveyard shift’ with barebones staffing. Only the very sick would still be hospitalized over the holidays, so anything could happen. And without even realizing it, all electronic devices seamlessly flipped over to the new century without a hitch.
We tend to spend a lot of time ruminating on arbitrary things. Why is this the year 2021 and not 4033? Why do some months have 30 days and some have 31 (or even 28?). Am I different from the day before my birthday to the day after my birthday? Are numbers significant?
The other day I watched one of those PBS shows, it was about sewing (definitely not in my skill set). But it began with a little lesson about sketching, about drawing. The expert was showing that when we draw, we usually base our efforts on our conceptions of how things are supposed to look. When drawing a person we draw an oval shape for the head, then other roughly geometric shapes for the rest of the body. We are sketching what we believe the shapes should look like. We tend to look at the ‘positive’ space, the space occupied. Things shift when we look at the negative space instead – those empty spaces. That allows us to change our perception and draw a truer picture. If you think of those illusions that you can stare at and see two profiles of beautiful young ladies, but when you look at the negative space instead, you see a beautiful vase. Or an old hag’s face, when turned upside down becomes a beautiful young woman. When we change our perception, when we look at the negative space (what can be) instead of the positive space (what is), we can change our whole view of the possibilities.
On this first Friday morning of a new year, I hope you can find ways to see hope and opportunity coming to replace all of the negativity of the past year. It may be that all that has to change is our perception, the way we look at things, to give us all of the blessings that this year holds for us. For in reality, that is the secret to this life, the way that everything that happens to us can be seen as a blessing, if we let it.
May you have a wonderful weekend, Family, full of hope and optimism. It is up to us!