Learn about the significance and history of New Year’s Eve – also known as Watch Night – and the traditions designed to bring Christians closer to God.
The significance and historic symbolism of New Year’s Eve have been overshadowed in recent years by revelry and broken resolutions. Some in society have even discouraged the tradition of making resolutions, citing studies which tell us that only 8 percent of us keep them and that resolutions may even be harmful to us!
But did you know that the Christian New Year’s Eve church service – also known as Watch Night Service – was created to bring Christians closer to God, and it also has very special significance in the African American community?
“Waiting for the hour”: Watch Night, 1862. Courtesy, Library of Congress.
WATCH NIGHT IN HISTORY
The Watch Night Service tradition can be traced back to the Moravians, a Christian denomination from the Czech Republic during the mid-1700’s.
John Wesley, the British founder of the Methodist Church, adopted the Czech practice of celebrating Watch Night, along with other English Puritan principles, when he instituted the Methodist Covenant Renewal Services. These services were started in August of 1755 as a means of creating for Christians a more formalized and personal connection and covenant with God. British Methodism soon developed the custom of holding these Covenant services near the beginning of the New Year. The service was preceded by a period of preparation through prayer, fasting, reflection
and self- examination, which has been credited as the modern source of today’s New Year’s Resolution. The singing, prayers of allegiance and gratitude, testimonials, and scripture readings provided Methodist Christians with a Godly alternative to other secular ways of celebrating the day.
In America, however, another tradition was unfolding. In 1770, the first Watch Services were held in America at the St. George’s Methodist Church. Two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were a part of this congregation and they later left the church after being denied the right to pray alongside white worshipers. In 1794, they became the renowned founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.).
The founders of the A.M.E. Church inspired the celebration of a new Watch Night tradition when, on December 31, 1862 – also known as “Freedom’s Eve” – the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in African American communities.
Gatherings of African American slaves, as well as free blacks, came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. At the stroke of midnight on that day, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy, as many people fell to their knees and thanked God.
WATCH NIGHT SERVICE TODAY
Watch Night Services usually begin between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and often end just past midnight. Today, the services may combine praise and worship, testimonies, and prophecy for the year to come, but many African American churches still honor Watch Night’s connection to the abolition of slavery.
Over 150 years has passed since the first “Freedom’s Eve,” and tradition now brings Christians of all colors together for worship and celebration each year. African American Christians have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since 1862, praising God for safe deliverance through another year: but, most importantly, honoring the ancestors’ prayers for a future of freedom and liberty.
Karen Lascaris is a regular contributor to Westa.org. She is the author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African American Traditions, Journeys, and Icons”, published in 2001 by Running Press of Philadelphia.
 Forbes.com, “Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Years Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/. Accessed 12/26/2015.
 “Watch Night”; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchnight_service, accessed 12-28-2017.
 “The Covenant Service”. http://www.methodist.org.uk/who-we-are/what-is-distinctive-about-methodism/a-covenant-with-god/the-covenant-service. Accessed 12/27/2017.
 “Why We Make New Year’s Resolutions”. LiveScience.com. http://m.livescience.com/42255-history-of-new-years-resolutions.html, accessed 12-28-15.
 “The Official Site of the AME Church”. www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/, accessed 12-28-2017.
 “First Watch Night Service Occurs”; The African American Desk Reference,
Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture. http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/first-watch-night-service-occurs, accessed 12-28-2017.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Not all Slaves were freed by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Only 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves were freed at that time. Freedom’s Eve was a call to action for all Black Americans; a moral imperative to fight for the full realization of freedom for their brothers and sisters who were still enslaved.
- All enslaved Africans were freed from chattel slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery on December 18, 1865.
- In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, the tradition of the late night service is called Midnight Mass or Eucharist. Like the Watch Night service of the Church of Scotland, it is attended on the night of Christmas Eve.