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Wed, 12.31.1862

The First ‘Watch Night Service’ in America Occurs

*On This date in 1862, the first Watch Night Services was celebrated in Back communities in America.

The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings 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 had become law.  Lincoln had used the occasion of the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863.

He justified his decision as a wartime measure and did not go so far as to free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union.  At the stroke of midnight, 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.  Still, the proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side.

Some 186,000 Black soldiers had joined the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.  Blacks (in particular) 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 and a half since the first Freedom’s Eve, and tradition still brings citizens together at this time every year to celebrate “how we got over.”

This celebration takes many 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, the 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.



The African American Desk Reference
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.
ISBN 0-471-23924-

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