WATCH NIGHT

If you live or grew up in a Black community in the United States, you have probably heard of “Watch Night Services,” the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year’s Eve.  The service usually begins anywhere from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year.  Some folks come to church first, before going to out to celebrate.  For others, church is the only New Year’s Eve event.

Like many others, I always assumed that Watch Night was a fairly  standard Christian religious service — made a bit more Afrocentric because that’s what happens when elements of Christianity become linked with the Black Church.   And yes, there is a history of Watch Night in the Methodist tradition.  Still, it seemed that most predominately White Christian churches did not include Watch Night services on their calendars, but focused instead on Christmas Eve programs.  In fact, there were instances where clergy in Mainline denominations wondered aloud about the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year’s Eve.   

However, in doing some research, I discovered there are two essential reasons for the importance of New Year’s Eve services in African American congregations.  Many of the Watch Night Services in Black communities that we celebrate today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve.”  On that night, Americans of African descent came together in churches, gathering places and private homes throughout the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law.  Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was  January 1, 1863, and according to Lincoln’s promise, all slaves in the Confederate States were legally free.  People remained in churches and other gathering places, eagerly awaiting word that Emancipation had been declared.  When the actual news of freedom was received later that day, there were prayers, shouts and  songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. 

But even before 1962 and the possibility of a Presidential Emancipation, African people had gathered on New Year’s Eve on plantations across the South.  That is because many owners of enslaved Africans tallied up their business accounts on the first day of each new year.  Human property was sold along with land and furnishings to satisfy debts.  Families and friends were separated.  Often they never saw each other again in this earthly world.  Thus coming together on December 31 might be the last time for enslaved and free Africans to be together with loved ones.

So, Black folks in North America have gathered annually on New Year’s Eve since the earliest days, praising God for bringing us safely through another year and praying for the future.  Certainly, those traditional gatherings were made even more poignant by the events of 1863 which brought freedom to the slaves and the Year of Jubilee.   Many generations have passed since and most of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night.  Yet our traditions and our faith still bring us together at the end of every year to celebrate once again “how we got over.”  

Written by Charyn D. Sutton  © 2004
charynsutton@aol.com

Please contact Charyn Sutton at The Onyx Group if you are interested in a presentation on the history of Watch Night at your school or conference.  This essay can be reproduced and used with proper attribution to and permission from Charyn D. Sutton.

Illustration Citation: Heard and Moseley.
Waiting for the hour [Emancipation] 
December 31, 1862.
Carte de visite.  Washington, 1863.
Prints and Photographs Division

African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
The Civil War: Part 2
Library of Congress

Essay on Watch Night by Charyn D. Sutton, The Onyx Group
Originally Written December 2000, Revised August 2004

Additional information on the history of Watch Night can be found in Emancipation Proclamation by noted African American historian John Hope Franklin and Forever Free by Dorothy Sterling (out of print).

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The Onyx Group
P.O. Box 60
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
Tel: 215-848-8860
Fax: 775-659-0771
E-mail:
charynsutton@aol.com
URL:
www.onyx-group.com

 

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