Like many others, I always assumed that Watch Night was a fairly standard Christian religious service -- made a bit more Afro centric 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, Blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, 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.
It's been 141 years since that first Freedom's Eve and many of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night, but tradition still brings us together at this time every year to celebrate "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 CitizenshipThe Civil War: Part 2Library of Congress
Essay on Watch Night by Charyn D. Sutton, The Onyx GroupOriginally 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).