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To read an original poem entitled Watch Night, click here.

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.   Still, it seemed that 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, there is a reason for the importance of New Year's Eve services in African American congregations.  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.  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. 

Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year's Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through  another year.  Generations have passed since that first Freedom's Eve and many of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night, but our traditions still bring us together at this time every year to celebrate once again "how we got over."  

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
December 2000

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).

 


"Year's Theme: “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” - Joshua 24:15; "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD in 2017.”

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