Watch Night Services
Wednesday, December 31, 1862
On this date, the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in Back communities in America.
Watch night services are late-night services held on New Year’s Eve in many African American churches. During watch night services, African American Christians take the time as an opportunity to review the year, make confessions, and prepare for the year ahead by praying and making resolutions for the new year.
Watch night services have added significance and history in the African American community in the United States. It is said that on the eve of January 1, 1863, Black slaves and free blacks gathered in churches and private homes all across the nation to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln as law. At the stroke of midnight, as January 1, 1863, dawned all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
Many Blacks in the United States continue to gather in churches annually on New Year’s to praise God for bringing us safely through another year. Services usually begin anywhere from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m and end at midnight as we usher in the New Year. There have been instances where non-black clergy have questioned the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year’s Eve. However, as noted by Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, New Year’s Eve services embody freedom, a powerful idea for a people largely held in bondage.