Many people ae unfamiliar with the Black American celebration known as “Watch Night”. This quiet, yet joyous welcoming in of the New Year often occurred in Black churches throughout the South, with church congregants awaiting midnight for the new year to start. It recognized the duty of faithful Christians to be ever vigilant, prepared to stand in steadfast faith for God, and to be prepared for the coming of the New Year.
Here is a WGBH Boston program on the history of Watch Night:
Listen to the program here
Watch Night has been observed by Black churches for decades. It is the meshing of welcoming in the new year, as well as the celebration of the abolition of slavery.
Watch Night originated among Black Americans as “Freedom’s Eve”, with gatherings of enslaved Blacks beginning on December 31, 1862, to await the issuing of freedom from slavery. They gathered together, free, and enslaved, in homes, fields, church, awaiting the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
At the stroke of midnight, January 1, 1863, all enslaves (in states that were in rebellion against the Union), were declared legally free. Of course they were not free immediately, but, to those who resided in the states that seceeded from the Union, freedom was now within their grasp. Upon receiving news of their freedom, the enslaves broke out into rapturous joy and all-night celebrations. With the actual receiving of the news on January 1, 1863, that they truly were legally (on paper) free, former enslaved women, men and children raised up prayers of thanks and praise to God for they now could have their lives to themselves, and celebrated all day with feasts, songs of praise, and prayers of thanks that they made it through this journey, and were now prepared for the new journey that lay ahead.
Heard and Moseley.
Waiting for the hour [Emancipation], December 31, 1862.
Carte de visite.
Prints and Photographs Division
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6160 (4-21a)
Thus began the official Year of Jubilee for Black men and women who were enslaved and had their lives, labor and families assailed by the ravages of slavery, as well as the ushering in the New Year of a new life of promise to uphold the covenants of God’s laws and to give thanks from the freedom of bondage.
The origins of Watch Night predate Black America’s celebration among other cultures (the Moravians, a small Christian denomination whose roots lie in present-day Czechoslovakia, and also with the Methodists under John Wesley) but, with the ending of slavery, and the ending of the old year, and the beginning of a new year (New Year’s Day) and the beginning of a new life (the abolition of slavery, Year of Jubilee), the celebration of Watch Night with a decidely Afro-centric twist to it, became a tradition among many Black churches in the American South.
I remember Watch Night in the Black church I attended as a child. It was a solemn occasion, with singing, the pastor’s sermon, and later a celebration of food and drink to help us remember what our Black ancestors suffered through—–and survived—-so that we, their children, would have a more abundant life free from slavery and its brutality, as well as to quietly welcome in the New Year, with its hopes and promises of a better life, and less of any sorrow and pain from the previous year. It was also a night for church members to renew strength in the Word of God and to remember and keep his covenants.
Watch Night started as the fearful, but, hopeful dream of a life free of involuntary servitude, and a life to be able to call one’s labor, one’s privacy, one’s life—-one’s own—- free from the enslavement from another human being, as well as greet the new year with the love and protection of God.
Watch Night gives recognition with my Black ancestors belief in the power of faith. Many Black Americans living today have never had the joy of experiencing Watch Night. But, it still lives on in the churches that still celebrate this lovely acknowledgment of the hope that millions of enslaved Black people had that there was yet a better day, if not for them, then definitely, for their children, and their children’s children.
The celebration that a new year was coming full of tests, but, also full of the promise of a new and better day.
So, to all of you who have never celebrated a Watch Night, and to those of you who still observe this very important celebration of the New Year. . . .
. . . .a very Happy Watch Night, and may the New Year bring you much peace, prosperity, and blessings!