New Year’s Eve has become a special time when many congregations across the nation gather to observe “Watch Night Services.” During this time individuals come together to sing, pray, and watch the old year go out and welcome in the New Year. Sometimes also called “Watch Meeting Services,” such annual meetings have special significance in African American communities.
According to Charyn Sutton of the Onyx Group, the tradition of such gatherings can be traced back Dec. 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom's Eve" when 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 Jan. 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
Indications, however, are that such New Year’s Eve services may have been introduced in England a hundred years prior to the Civil War. According to Duane V. Maxey, Watch-Night Services may have originated with John and Charles Wesley on Dec. 31, 1738 – Jan. 1, 1739. As the founders of Methodism, the Wesley Brothers later included the observance of "Watch-Nights" in 1789. Maxey also notes that originally, Methodist "Watch-Nights" were often observed on many other dates besides the traditional "Watch-Night" service on New Year's Eve.
In the United States, Alternatives for Simple Living notes that in 1770 "watch night" services on New Year's Eve were started by St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia and were designed to provide an alternative to secular New Year's Eve celebrations. Here we find another indication that the tradition predates the Civil War.
As the nation approaches another "Freedom's Eve," it is time to reflect upon the past with deepest gratitude for the journey, thus far along the way, and to look ahead with anticipation of even greater triumphs ahead in 2014. The tradition of Watch Night Services, thus, continues to be observed in many churches, particularly African American congregations, across the land.