Back in the relatively early days of this blog, my friend Marsha Joyner guest posted a wonderful reflection on Watch Night Services in African-American culture. I still get a lot of search engine traffic to it every year around this time. If you haven't read it before, I invite you to read the whole thing. Marsha's other posts here are also worth reading.
Those of us who grew up in America’s traditional Black communities know of Watch Night Services, the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year’s Eve. So as I ventured into the world it came as a surprise to me that other than the Catholic Church, which celebrates the eve of the feast of the Circumcision late on the evening of December 31, primarily white protestant churches generally do not have a church service for a secular holiday.
The service is an opportunity to tell the story of one of the most important milestones in the Blacks’ American history. The Watch Night Services that we celebrate in Black communities 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, 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. Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us through another year.