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!


72 Replies to “Watch Night Service History”

  1. I am white and our churches, Southern BAPTIST and others have had Watch Night Services. Sometimes we prayed the New Year in and just wanted to be praying as the new year came in. Other times we just had prayer and fellowship. It’s been happening for years. Not sure how it started.

  2. Well I believe you can trace it back to way before than, because night watch is a part of Haitian history. Especially since we gained our Independence in 1804 that’s way before the tines you mentioned there must be an original reason from our African roots. But is there a reason Christians do it or is it another pagan tradition changed to fit the christian mold. There were many belief systems in Africa.

  3. I would doubt the accuracy of this as people in the Caribbean in general, and Jamaica in particular, have been keeping “Watch Night” service for as long as people can recall and Slavery ended in the British Caribbean in 1834.

    1. It’s accurate Michael B…..in the US the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery ….freedom on Jan 1. 1863. It took two more years for news to reach Texas ushering Juneteenth celebrations in Texas when blacks realized freedom there.

    2. Date:
      Wed, 1862-12-31
      *On This date in 1862 the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in Back communities in America.

      The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, Black slaves and 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, it was January 1, 1863; 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.

      Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year. It’s been over a century since the first Freedom’s Eve and tradition still brings us together at this time every year to celebrate “how we got over.” This celebration takes many African American decendants of slaves into a new year with praise and worship. 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 people come to church first, before going out to celebrate, for others, church is the only New Year’s Eve event.

      There have been instances where clergy in mainline denominations questioned 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 the Black experience in America.

      Reference:
      The African American Desk Reference
      Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture
      Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
      The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.
      ISBN 0-471-23924-

      Related videos:

    3. Absalom Jones (November 7, 1746 – February 13, 1818) was an African-American abolitionist and clergyman. After founding a black congregation in 1794, he was the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States, in 1804. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints and remembered liturgically on the date of his death, February 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as “Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818”.

      Famous for his oratory, Absalom Jones helped establish the tradition of anti-slavery sermons on New Year’s Day. His sermon for January 1, 1808, the date on which the U.S. Constitution mandated the end of the African slave trade, called A Thanksgiving Sermon was published in pamphlet-form and became famous.

    4. Because this was happening in the Caribbean doesn’t mean that it was not also occurring in America. And more likely it affected white churches coming from African American churches than from the Caribbean.

  4. Wow! Thanks. I did not know this piece of history, but I could feel the spirit of longing for freedom in those services, both in Alabama and Chicago! We always prayed for a better year for “our people”!❤️

    1. Amen to that , as my roots are in both Alabama and Chicago too, and have always prayed and fellowshiped together for watch night. It’s a standing tradition in my family.

  5. 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!

  6. 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

    1. It is empowering when it is known. Sad that not enough Black Pastor’s teach it. I learned this very early in ministry because study and teaching are vitally important in nurturing God’s people. “People perish for the lack of knowledge” That’s Bible. Peace

  7. 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.

    1. Our history was passed down through word of mouth, we do not need no damn research or your man made science to prove anything, the devil is a liar

    2. The African American Desk Reference
      Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture
      Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
      The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.
      ISBN 0-471-23924-http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/first-black-watch-night-service-occurs-america

  8. 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.

    1. Thank you Bishop for your knowledge and insight by answering the question with truth. Sometimes we can get caught up in what truth is by forgetting or not knowing how to use our own minds eye!!

  9. 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.

  10. 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…

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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!

  14. 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

  15. 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

  16. 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

  17. 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.

    1. I am not arguing the veracity of Watch Night” but we need to consider the time frame. Everything was secretly done to protect the internal. African-American community. The opportunity to notate many historical items were limited to the internal African American community and then it was word of mouth. The African American community had limited access to the educational and material items required to document their history. Similar to the African American, much of American Indian History is by word of mouth. Normally, I prefer written and visual documentation but are we to negate a whole cultural history because of lack of Anglo documentation. Verbal consistency in the cultural community has to be taken into account. There were many cultures that provided an oral and musical history. A history of a culture can be derived and validated from many sources. There also has to be a desire for the people discover the history of a culture before it’s all lost. One major source besides people is supporting anthropoligical education to document that cultural history. Thanks for your patience. This is one person’s perspective.

  18. 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…..

  19. 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.

  20. 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. 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!

  21. 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. 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. 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)

  22. 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!

    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. 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. 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!

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