Recently I shared with you some popular New Year‘s Eve celebrations that many will observe. For this post, I will focus on Watch Night, a tradition that is deeply rooted in the history of people of African descent throughout the United States.
As a child growing up in Savannah, Georgia, I remember my grandparents would make their way to church every New Year’s Eve. This was a solemn time for them. Looking back on those days, I also remember how their voice would change as they recounted the painful stories their parents and grandparents shared. I would also grow to appreciate how they were able to quiet their spirits whenever they heard the song “How I Got Over”. When I look at my life, I have so much to be thankful for. There has never been a day when I have not said I’m grateful!
The summary below is reprinted from the African-American Registry. This site is a wonderful resource for African-American history and culture. I am including the link to the site for your reference.
Date: Wed, 1862-12-31*
* On this date in 1862 the first Watch Night Services were celebrated in Black 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.
The article goes on to explain that 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 descendants 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.
Wishing you peace and joy in 2015!
The African-American Desk Reference, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc The New York Public Library John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Publishing