T H E “W A T C H N I G H T” S E R V I C E
A PROGRESSION OF ITS
Vernon M. Herron
Vernon M. Herron
Many of us who grew up in the Black community of a typical city have probably heard of a “Watch Night Service.” It was the gathering of the faithful in Church on New Year’s Eve to give thanks and praises to God for seeing us through another year. But is that the real historic meaning of “Watch Night” service?
I remember two distinct “Watch Night” services which left an indelible impression upon this writer. First, during my adolescent years, often I would attend Watch Night services at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC where one had to arrive before 10 p.m. to be assured of a seat for the midnight service. The worship service basically was “thanksgiving” in substance. It consisted of the singing of meter hymns, moaning prayers of thanksgiving, testimonies, and preaching which must be in progress at the strike of midnight, when all lights would be extinguished and when worshippers shouted and yelled, “thank you Jesus to see another year!” This was a dramatic moment of congregational achievement. The Church’s bell would sound for 3 to 5 minutes after which all lights would return. After the offering, everyone went home with a new year’s blessing for being alive at the beginning of a new year.
The second “Watch Night” experience which left an indelible impression was when I visited the mission field in San Andres Island, Columbia as the guest evangelist of the First Baptist Church. The annual revival was held during the last week of December including New Year Day. There was the popular notion that everybody on the Island must be in Church or on its grounds when the New Year arrives for “good luck” and to ensure blessings during the year. Consequently, the church was packed and its grounds filled as the Islanders had come, not to hear the proclaimed Word but to insure each individual of personal charm and prosperity.
The truth of the matter is that “Watch Night” service is an intrigue part of the African American cultural tradition yet lacking in full understanding of its historic significance. As stated earlier, the Watch Night service begins anywhere from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year.
It is 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 main denominations wondered aloud about the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year’s Eve services in African-American congregations.
The Watch Night Services in Black communities 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 actually had become law.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation declaring that the War between states had ended and that the enslaved were now freed. For two and a half years, this information was delayed in getting to Texas and when it did, it had little impact due to the minimal number of Union Troops to enforce the new Executive Order. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
It was not until December 18, 1865 that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified which ended slavery in all parts of the United States. When this 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 over a century since that first Freedom’s Eve and many of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night, but tradition still bring us together at this time every year to celebrate “how we got over.”