Watch Night Service History



Many of you who live or grew up in Black communities in the United States 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 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 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 145 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.”

PS- Pass this information on so we can educate more of our Family and Friends about our History!


Comments

  1. w cheatham says:

    your right on it. you would be surprised how many dont know why we do what we do.

    1. Thanks for the comment, please be sure to send the page around so that we can spread the word. The Bible instructs us to be knowledgeable, wise men.

      1. Nmiller says:

        Thanks for the history on watch night service. Some folks try to discredit the purpose or reason we have watch night but I believe after reading our history they would celebrate also because the Lord has brought us from a mighty long way.

        Thanks again,
        NMiller

      2. Brother Ron says:

        Although your words are interesting… I am at a loss that no one (that I have seen as of yet) has mentioned any of the pagan roots associated with “Watch night”, or this particular time regarded as “New Year’s Eve”.

        The Biblical [Scriptural] watch night, took place each Month (Genesis 1:14-16), involving the Sun, Moon, and the Stars (mainly the New Moon, as this indicated a New Month in Scripture).

        1. January is named after “Janus” – The Roman Mythology Deity (with Two faces). Look “Janus” up in the Dictionary or Encyclopedias. That Pagan Mythology deity of new beginnings, is not the same one that we read about in the Holy Scriptures! [i.e., "The Bible"]

        2. Since we are talking about “Churches”, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to ignore the New Year that is outlined in the Scriptures? (Exodus 12:2) that the Churches should be recognizing? Notice Who was Speaking (by the preceding Verse), and then notice what was said in the following/next verse (same month), it starts talking about Passover!
        ** And my friends, Passover simply was not/is not in the month of January!

        3. Since Passover is mentioned; which happens to be in the same month that most recognize The Messiah’s Resurrection (or what some might even call “Easter” – referencing the fertility aspect of that day [which includes bunnies & eggs], which also stems from paganism in origin).
        ** We should note that “Easter” is the Only so called Christian Holiday that is governed by the Moon! It will always be after the Turn of the Year (which most call Spring, or Spring Forward), which implicates the Earth’s Full Rotation around the Sun. So “Easter” will Always be the First Sunday after a Full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox! That’s why it is sometimes in March, and sometimes in April.

        4. The Scriptural (Biblical) New Year that was Spoken / Instructed out of the Mouth of The “GOD” of The Scriptures/Bible (Exodus 12:2)… has a whole different feel & meaning to it!
        ** Even Nature recognizes That New Year; a time truly enriched with New Beginnings! Grass turns green/starts to grow, Flowers start to bloom, Tree’s grow their leaves back, Bees come out, Bears come out of hibernation, notice the Pollen, etc.,. One starts to notice New Life/New Beginnings!

        ** Whereas the month [January, named after "Janus"] giving homage to the Roman Mythology deity of new beginnings is the total opposite: usually Ice on the ground, Cold/Freezing weather, most Tree’s look dead, grass is brown or dead, flowers… the same, No Bees, etc.,. One rarely starts to notice New Life (in Nature), or New Beginnings!

        5. As a so called “Christian”, or “Believer” of what the Scriptures have to say [referencing this since various Churches were mentioned]; We should be very careful not to Insult the Most High by ignoring what HE has said! After all, [in some Bibles] the Scripture in Red Lettering spoken by The Messiah in (Matthew 4:4) should be regarded a little more serious by True Believers! “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every …” You finish the rest! ;-)

        Then take a look at (Exodus 12:2) again, and realize Who was Speaking, and that the verse/HE was Not talking about “January” there!

        Food for thought! For Edification/Sharpening purposes! In HIS [YHWH's] Love!
        - Shalom!

  2. Donna says:

    Can you submit info about the photo. Year and where it was taken.

    Blessings

  3. Dana says:

    Thanks for sharing! This is very insightful. I must admit that I was not aware of the history behind watch night services. I have been going to church on new years eve for years. It has always been in my heart to do so. God is so good!

  4. Crescentia says:

    While Freedom Day has contributed to the meaning of Watch Night, it wasn’t the original Watch Night. The tradition was started in the Moravian church, and was carried by John Wesley and the Methodists. Freedom Day reinforced the tradition, and has since added meaning to a time which already focused on our spiritual freedom and redemption to include the physical freedom attained at midnight that night.

    Oh, and plenty of churches that aren’t predominantly African American celebrate Watch Night, too. :) We all look forward to the coming of our Savior, seeking forgiveness for our past, and guidance for our future so that one day we may see Him coming in the clouds. For this we watch.

    snopes.com/holidays/newyears/watchnight.asp

    1. Everett says:

      My writing below yours was written early this morning, but I never pressed post! lol I hope you can get to my own treatise on the matter. All the best in the new year. Peace

    2. William says:

      Daniel 2:44. There we read: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” Only Gods Kingdom will bring about equality for all men, something that no government can do. That Kingdom will do God’s will and bring wonderful blessings. For example, it will remove Satan and his demons. (Revelation 20:1-3) The power of Jesus’ sacrifice will be applied so that faithful humans will no longer get sick and die. Instead, under Kingdom rule they will be able to live forever. (Revelation 22:1-3)

  5. Everett says:

    When I read this brief history of Watch Night, I was simultaneously transported back to the presence of my ancestors awaiting the good news of emancipation AND the front row seat in my present day church remembering from whence we’ve come. The moment was fleeting, however, because in my zeal to garner information to share with my parishioners tonite, I came upon a website with a slightly different bend on the history of Watch Night:

    snopes.com/holidays/newyears/watchnight.asp

    I was immediately drawn in because of the heading which preceded a reprint of RIVERANGEL42′s very words: “FALSE!” This piece, written by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson was making scurrilous claims about a tradition that informs the deepest sense of our social standing in these United States of America. It was one more nefarious attack upon “all things black” by people of presumed european ancestry. Or was it…

    After composing myself, I decided to undertake a more critical examination of the Mikkelson writing and why it disturbed me so. Many things occurred to me along the way, though the following points seemed most relevant. Because of our experience in coming to America, including the loss of so many things germane to our African ancestry, black folk have created hybrid forms of many things rooted in european ancestry. Religious belief/practice comes to mind most quickly. Consider the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church born of the Free African Society under Richard Allen/Absalom Jones which came out of the St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia and by extension John Wesley and the Church of England in the late 18th century. One could say the same for the Baptists, Church of God In Christ, Christian Methodist Church (CME), and other denominations typically recognized as “the black church.”

    Immediately, a question came to the fore: “Should we abandon Watch Night and other elements of our religious praxis simply because of their european roots? I think not! Here’s why: interaction between various cultures lends itself unavoidably to the interweaving or adoption of those elements from the influencing culture that feed the spirit of their own. This adoption or co-opting of culture does not devalue the integrity of its hybrid form. This hybrid seeks to embody those things that are distinctly that of the reforming culture; making it their own. No harm done! (John Wesley would say)

    To close, truth is truth! It is inescapable if all or reasonable doubt can be extinguished. I greatly appreciate the additional historical information provided by the Mikkelsons. That being said, I would submit the manner in which the Mikkelson writing chose to frame your writing was improper. I would have said your brief was perhaps incomplete from a historical perspective. Yet, I believe your brief was not meant to be a full historical exposition but specifically aimed at capturing the spirit of that which is important to people of color. I feel better now. And so, tonight we remember and celebrate! Many thanks…

    1. Brother Ron says:

      Although your words are interesting… I am at a loss that no one (that I have seen as of yet) has mentioned any of the pagan roots associated with “Watch night”, or this particular time regarded as “New Year’s Eve”.

      The Biblical [Scriptural] watch night, took place each Month (Genesis 1:14-16), involving the Sun, Moon, and the Stars (mainly the New Moon, as this indicated a New Month in Scripture).

      1. January is named after “Janus” – The Roman Mythology Deity (with Two faces). Look “Janus” up in the Dictionary or Encyclopedias. That Pagan Mythology deity of new beginnings, is not the same one that we read about in the Holy Scriptures! [i.e., "The Bible"]

      2. Since we are talking about “Churches”, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to ignore the New Year that is outlined in the Scriptures? (Exodus 12:2) that the Churches should be recognizing? Notice Who was Speaking (by the preceding Verse), and then notice what was said in the following/next verse (same month), it starts talking about Passover!
      ** And my friends, Passover simply was not/is not in the month of January!

      3. Since Passover is mentioned; which happens to be in the same month that most recognize The Messiah’s Resurrection (or what some might even call “Easter” – referencing the fertility aspect of that day [which includes bunnies & eggs], which also stems from paganism in origin).
      ** We should note that “Easter” is the Only so called Christian Holiday that is governed by the Moon! It will always be after the Turn of the Year (which most call Spring, or Spring Forward), which implicates the Earth’s Full Rotation around the Sun. So “Easter” will Always be the First Sunday after a Full Moon, after the Vernal Equinox! That’s why it is sometimes in March, and sometimes in April.

      4. The Scriptural (Biblical) New Year that was Spoken / Instructed out of the Mouth of The “GOD” of The Scriptures/Bible (Exodus 12:2)… has a whole different feel & meaning to it!
      ** Even Nature recognizes That New Year; a time truly enriched with New Beginnings! Grass turns green/starts to grow, Flowers start to bloom, Tree’s grow their leaves back, Bees come out, Bears come out of hibernation, notice the Pollen, etc.,. One starts to notice New Life/New Beginnings!

      ** Whereas the month [January, named after "Janus"] giving homage to the Roman Mythology deity of new beginnings is the total opposite: usually Ice on the ground, Cold/Freezing weather, most Tree’s look dead, grass is brown or dead, flowers… the same, No Bees, etc.,. One rarely starts to notice New Life (in Nature), or New Beginnings!

      5. As a so called “Christian”, or “Believer” of what the Scriptures have to say [referencing this since various Churches were mentioned]; We should be very careful not to Insult the Most High by ignoring what HE has said! After all, [in some Bibles] the Scripture in Red Lettering spoken by The Messiah in (Matthew 4:4) should be regarded a little more serious by True Believers! “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every …” You finish the rest! ;-)

      Then take a look at (Exodus 12:2) again, and realize Who was Speaking, and that the verse/HE was Not talking about “January” there!

      Food for thought! For Edification/Sharpening purposes! In HIS [YHWH's] Love!
      - Shalom!

      1. Patrice says:

        Totally agree!

      2. Thanks for sharing the truth.

  6. This should remain a celebration of our people’s freedom. Some landmarks in our history should NEVER be forget or stop being celebrated. So the next time you think about celebrating New Year’s think about the freedom that should we enjoy.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As we gather together praising God for bringing us safely through another year on december 31 of every year it would be good if Pastor will begin to teach the reason for the first gathering.Teach the history, 145 years ago since that first Freedom’s Eve we should remember what God brought us out of, we as a Black people should never forget what our ancestors endured.We should remember with prayer and praise to God the Father and Jesus Christ our Savior for continued blessings. Praise God, teach the history – remember…..

  8. @askportia African Americans and Watch Night Service, we go but do we know why? http://t.co/GxTpHHz7

  9. #POCgenealogy History of Freedom’s Eve …Watch Night Service.
    http://t.co/CuYE4lKC

  10. Watch Night Service History | ONLINE FELLOWSHIP – Christian Fellowship, Sermons, Gospel Music, Lyrics http://t.co/aFy0Y6am

  11. For ppl who don’t know much black history, here’s the origin of watch night service: http://t.co/x0sUrljO #unknownblackhistoryfact

  12. Nora-Ann Thompson says:

    I did not know the reason for watch nite services but found it important in my life.

  13. Watch Night Service History | ONLINE FELLOWSHIP – Christian Fellowship, Sermons, Gospel Music, Lyrics http://t.co/EL7JINez

  14. Watch Night History – Dec 31, 1862, known as “Freedom’s Eve” at midnight slaves in Confederate States were legally free http://t.co/8eyWpNaY

  15. Theresa Martin Saint James says:

    Most enlightening…

  16. Walter Clark says:

    While I was aware of the original intent of Watch Meeting, I am still in awe of the diligence our foreparents had in such cases. They patiently yet enthusiastically waited on God to do this great thing. They supported one another’s excitement, shared each other’s dreams for a better future. While we may continue this tradition for a different reason, I believe we are still watching for freedom from the toils and trials of the past and freedom to hope for better.
    I love our history and pray there are some traditions that remain in our culture. Watch as well as pray. God bless this author/contributor for a spirit of sharing and education and each of you who have shared.
    Rev. C.

  17. Elder Donald Danner says:

    Thanks to whomever initiated this information. This is great,this is fruitful. God Bless

  18. miriam says:

    Dec.31…Kwanzaa Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity) the pricipal of Kuumbaa, or Creativity, speaks to the rich, inventive African American traditions handed down to future generations. IT is a day to do as much as possible to create beautiful and beneficial communities

    Jan.1 the 7day of kwanzaa, dedicated to the virtues of Imani ( faith), is celebrated today. On this day in history: Absalom Jones, cofounder of African Free Church, declared New Years Day as African American Thanksgivin g Day in 1808. The Emanicipation Proclamation for thanks in 1863

  19. Pinkey says:

    Thx for the info & enlightenment. This hx, along with the reasons why Christians attend services,creates a comprehensive approach to make thz night an even more important event in my life :-)Pinkey

  20. […] to OnlineFellowship.org, Many of you who live or grew up in Black communities in the United States have probably heard of […]

  21. William hydrick says:

    I found this discussion really interesting and assuming its true a fascinating look at the tradition of uniting nee years eve with church attendance. But I feel obligated to point out the celebbration that Gwen used to commemorate the circumcision of our lord eight days following his birth as is the Jewish Tradition. ( that would make today the vigil of said feast). Not to detract from the secularizston of the event but it really does have a religious undertone

    WSH

  22. Watch Night Service Brief History…. http://t.co/GxTpHHz7

  23. I am a 57 year-old Caucasian woman and I never knew this about the African-American community. But I do remember that when I was a little girl, we had Watch Night. I don’t really remember a Christmas Eve service, but I remember Watch Night. Thank you for the post as I always enjoy learning about history and all that it encompasses. God bless you all as we escort in the New Year and a new start in life for many!

  24. William Foster says:

    I learned something from this, i participated in these before never thinking about why they were helded on New Years Eve.

  25. Paulette Skeir says:

    I remember going to the services with my Dad as he was the minister in 3 Church so he would take turns going to each church it was so well attended by a lot of elders of the church mostly they would be giving testimonies ,singing, praying and thanking God for a New Year but the history is so good to know we need to know more from are ancestors it really opens our minds

  26. Karen says:

    Thanks for the history behind the Watch Night Services. My grandfather was a Pentecostal minister and we always had Watch Night Services on New Year’s Eve. I did not know where it originated.

  27. Ron Lewis says:

    Amen.

  28. perry cooper says:

    This is some good information that all people need to know, so that it would give and enlighting to our brothers and sisters in God, remembering the strugle of our ancestors had to endure, while waitin to watch for the the new year, and the freeing of the slaves in 1863….this is 145 yrs since that time….thank God for bring us this far and yet we must continue to fight the good fight of faith trusting in the only wise God, through Jesus Christ the Lord…love u guys…

  29. Fr. Timothy Cremeens says:

    I grew up in Springfield, Ohio in the 60s and 70s in a white Wesleyan-Holiness Church. We were forbidden to dance or drink so we always had church New Years Eve. We’d sing and sing (sometimes there would be a special guest singing group) and at about a quarter till midnight we’d get on our knees and “pray the New Year in”. Then after the service the youth group would go bowling to the only bowling alley, in New Carlisle, Ohio, in the area that didn’t serve liquor.

    Those services were wonderful and I have such great memories. Thanks be to God I have no “nightmare” stories about drunkin’ New Years Even parties or all the negative stuff associated with them.

  30. John says:

    This is inspiring

  31. is Jess what the Scriptures teach a fifth in the King James Bible the Europeans century Bible. That is because whatever history was given to us was given to us by I’ll taskmaster. So in order to know the truth about yourself you must first understand who you are where you come from to include the struggle of the black people. You need to know and learn this on a day by day basis we can accomplish more than we think we can ever imagine. The liked of understanding who you are at all times can force you back into slavery.

  32. Beryl Turner says:

    Enlightening. I had no idea!

  33. Avatar of James Taylor James Taylor says:

    Without some citation of scholarly research or a past or new book on the subject, this is just conjecture.

    Notice the article mentions no one individual of any authority making this claim, no research, no science, no university’s claims, no archeological finds, nothing. Just someone making stuff up because they thought it possible that our ancestors started this practice in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. It may be true, but at least base it on some established facts.

  34. Wilma says:

    Amen! Happy New Year!

  35. Avatar of donald perry donald perry says:

    Awesomely inspiring! Over past 20 years in many Black congregations, I don’t quite remember hearing this information until last week visiting a service. I wonder why most Black preachers don’t inform or at least educate their congregations on this. I wonder why?! Hmmmm! ~Chaplain Donald Perry-Dallas

  36. Sabrina Powell says:

    Praise God.

  37. Shirley Stuckey says:

    This is truly enlightening. I had never heard this before. Now is the time to keep spreading every bit of our history that has been previously obscured. A BIG THANK YOU!