Happy New Year! Do You Know the History of Watch Night service?


At a recent community event, an elder taught me the history behind “watch night services.” So much of what we do culturally as African Americans has a poignant historical significance. We must share the history of our enslavement, struggles, culture and traditions with our children, grandchildren and the larger community. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many “lost” young black people, if we inculcated African American history, culture and traditions into their marrow.

Despite centuries of revile and persecution, Jews have survived as a people, religion, culture, and nation, not just because they are God’s “chosen people,” but because every observation and celebration is a transmission of their history. I would daresay that African Americans know more about Jewish historiography and culture than about their people. Like you, in 2011, I resolve to follow the lead of that community elder by sharing the facts behind Watch Night and other black traditions.

Reprinted below is an excerpt of an article originally written by Charyn D. Sutton for her Watch Night© presentations and published by The Positive Community in 2004. For more information, please contact Ms. Sutton at charynsutton@aol.com.

“Watch Night Services,” the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year’s Eve was a fairly standard Christian religious service. There’s a history of Watch Night in the Methodist tradition. However, New Year’s Eve services are particularly important in African-American congregations.

On December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve,” Americans of African descent came together in churches, gathering places and private homes 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 1862 and the possibility of a Presidential Emancipation, African people had gathered on New Year’s Eve on plantations across the south. Many slave owners 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 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.”  — Charyn D. Sutton © 2004.

About Michael Benjamin (SquarePegDem)

A former state legislator turned thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email MichaelBenjamin@about.me.
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10 Responses to Happy New Year! Do You Know the History of Watch Night service?

  1. John M. Lemon says:

    Hi Mike, I learn something new today. Keep up the good work. John L.

  2. Pingback: HAPPY NEW YEAR — ALL THE BEST IN 2012 | MichaelBenjamin2012's Blog

  3. Jeff Wallace says:

    Read

  4. Greetings Michael,
    This was very informative, and I am embarrassed to say I have not been taught such an important piece of historical information. Thinking on both reasons, at least in 12/31/1862 they chose to get together, and the years before that, it was not of their choosing. Thanks for such a great post.

  5. Angela says:

    Attended a panel discussion on the history of watch night service at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis this month. Was not aware of the historical relevance as it applies to the Emancipation Proclamation and the pre-emancipation watch night service gatherings. I was raised in church and we just always attended watch night service as it pertains to summizing the old year and looking to the new year with improvement. I’ve been researching for more info since the panel discussion to share with others. Thanks!!!

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