Watch Night Services: An African-American Tradition Bringing in the New Year (Local churches have scheduled Virtual Night Watch Service or scaled back attendance due to COVID-19)

On New Year’s Eve, many African American congregations in churches across the country will pour into the pews for “Watch Night Service,” a special night of prayer, commemoration and celebration. Due to COVID-19 many churches have scheduled virtual services via the internet or scaled back attendance due to attendance restrictions.

The service usually begins anywhere from 7 p.m. To 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. While others, hit the clubs on New Year’s Eve.  Church Watch Night Service is the New Year’s Eve event for people of faith. A place of worship is not a bad place to start the New Year. However, there is a historic reason for the importance of New Year’s Eve Watch Night Services in the tradition of the African American church.

Night Watch Service dates back to 1864

“Watch Night Service” finds its roots in a Christian tradition that may have started as far back as 1733 in the Czech Republic. When the practice was adopted by Blacks in the United States, it took on a new and significant meaning. Here is one person’s widely circulated account of the tradition’s history and meaning in the Black community:

The Watch Night Services took on special significance to African Americans on New Year’s Eve in 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 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.

When the 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 over150 years since that first Freedom’s Eve and many of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night, but tradition still brings us together at this time every year to celebrate “how we got over.”


uncredited photo unknown origin