Why Black Americans Celebrate Watch Night on New Year's Eve

Tim Russell
Image: Heard & Moseley, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-DIG-ppmsca-10980)
Image: Heard & Moseley, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-DIG-ppmsca-10980)

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On December 31, 1862, free Blacks and Black slaves came together in churches and private homes all across the nation to await news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law on New Year’s Day, 1863. When the news arrived, there were prayers, shouts, and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. Since that “Freedom’s Eve,” the Black community has gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve to observe Watch Night, praising God for bringing us safely through another year.

This celebration takes many American descendants of slaves into a new year with praise and worship. The service usually begins anywhere from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm and ends at midnight with the beginning of the New Year. I have attended Watch Night Services my entire life, relishing the joy and anticipation as the congregation prayed the old year out and the New Year in.

On December 28, Black Voices: A WTTW News Community Conversation hosted a virtual panel discussion on the significance of Watch Night and New Year’s Day Celebrations for the Black community. Rev. Dr. Waltrina Middleton, executive director of the Community Renewal Society; Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, a Justice Studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University; Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ; and Christa Hamilton, executive director of Centers for New Horizons, joined Chicago Tonight’s Brandis Friedman to share their own experiences of Watch Night, discuss its traditions, and explain its importance today. Watch the discussion below, and learn more about Watch Night in this episode of Alabama Public Television's Journey Proud.

This year, Watch Night is of special significance, not only in recognizing its historical importance, but also in celebrating the end of a difficult year and the hope and promise of a new year to come. As such, I wish you and yours a very Happy New Year!

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