Watch Night

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Watch Night

New Year's Eve Service

Some Americans refer to New Year's Eve as Watch Night. The name comes from the tradition of attending lengthy church vigils, called Watch Night services, on this evening. Watch Night services begin late in the evening on December 31 and continue through midnight. They usually feature singing, prayers and sermons. Attendees are encouraged to review their behavior in the year that has just passed, to renew their commitment to God in the year to come, and to pray for themselves, their families, and the world (see also Resolutions). New Year's Eve Watch Night services got their start in the Methodist and Moravian churches. Today they are most often found in evangelical Protestant churches, especially those whose congregations are composed primarily of African Americans.


Vigils - church services held on the evening before an important feast day - can be traced back to early Christian times. The Watch Night service adapts this church custom to New Year's Eve, a secular holiday. The word "vigil" comes from the Latin term vigilia, which means "to watch." When English Methodists began holding late-night services in the eighteenth century, they called them Watch Night services.

Making New Year's Eve a Religious Holiday

In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement known as the Reformation gave birth to Protestant Christianity. A group of early Protestant Christians known as the Puritans found fault with many holiday celebrations, including those that took place on New Year's Eve. In particular they objected to the heavy drinking, masking (seealso Masque; Mumming), gaming, gambling, dancing, and public carousing that characterized the celebration of the holiday. They found these customs coarse and viewed them as contrary to the behavior that they believed should characterize a Christian society.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries evangelical Protestant leaders, such as those belonging to the newly formed Methodist denomination, took up the campaign to reform New Year's Eve celebrations. They tried to give the holiday a religious significance by urging their followers to use the occasion to examine their spiritual lives and to resolve to do better in the coming year. Watch Night services provided worshipers an opportunity to meditate and pray on these issues. The late-night services could easily be linked to biblical teachings by referring to passages from Christian scripture that admonish the faithful to be awake and alert for the hour of Christ's coming (for example, Matthew 25:1-13). Watch Night services became popular among American evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century.

Methodist Watch Night Services

John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, first observed Watch Night services among Moravian Christians. These services inspired him to approve of similar observances for Methodists (for more on Moravian Christmas customs, see Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in; Christingle; Lovefeast; Putz). He first met Moravians on his sea voyage to the American colonies, where he served from 1735 to 1737 as an Anglican priest in Georgia. He continued to have contact with Moravians upon his return to England, where he broke away from the Church of England to form the Methodist Church.

The first Watch Night services convened by British Methodists were held monthly on the night of the full moon and were often attended by those who sought an alternative to carousing at the local pub. The service emphasized renewal of one's commitment to Christ. The light of the moon permitted worshipers to walk home safely after midnight when the service had concluded. Later the Methodist Church added New Year's Eve Watch Night services, also presented as an alternative to the boisterous and alcohol-laden celebrations taking place on the streets and in the taverns.

English Methodists brought the Watch Night service with them to the American colonies. The first Watch Night services to be convened by American Methodists took place at Philadelphia's St. George's Methodist Church and at New York City's Wesley Chapel in November of 1770.

In the nineteenth century monthly Watch Night services declined in popularity while New Year's Eve Watch Night services found favor in both British and American Methodist churches. During the twentieth century, however, the New Year's Eve Watch Night service began to fall out of favor in Methodist congregations composed primarily of European Americans. In recent years, a secular attempt to reform New Year's Eve has produced a new alternative to traditional New Year's Eve celebrations: the First Night festival.

African Americans

Among African Americans the Watch Night service has spread beyond Methodist congregations and into other Protestant churches. In some black churches Watch Night services take on a somber tone, as people consider the passing of time and their own mortality. Inspiring sermons, along with plenty of opportunities to sing and pray, round out the experience. African-American slaves who attended Watch Night services on December 31, 1862, may have felt their prayers were answered the following day (see also Slaves' Christmas). On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing over three million slaves. Some African-American communities still celebrate January 1 as Emancipation Day.


A few Moravian congregations also continue to hold Watch Night services. According to Moravian tradition, the pastor should begin a sermon as midnight approaches. As the clock strikes midnight a trombone choir or other kind of band cuts the sermon off in midstream. The pastor abandons his or her unfinished speech and joins the congregation in singing the hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." The interruption symbolizes the teaching that Christ could return at any minute and reminds everyone of the need for constant spiritual readiness. In another form of this tradition the congregation stands up and leaves the church at midnight, in the middle of the pastor's sermon. In past times Moravian Watch Night services also included a review of the year's most important events, but this custom has been abandoned.

Further Reading

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. Hogan-Albach, Susan. "Watch Night: It's an Age-Old New Year's Eve Tradition That's about Much More than Watching the Clock and Making Resolutions." Minneapolis Star Tribune (December 27, 1997): 05B. Sawyer, Edwin A. All About the Moravians. Bethlehem, Pa.: The Moravian Church in America, 2000. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holi-days. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Web Site

"Meet the New Millennium Through Watch-Night Service," an article by the Rev. Diedra Kriewald, published by the United Methodist News Service and available online at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Watch Night

Date Observed: December 31
Location: African-American Communities

In many African-American communities across the United States, the last day of the year is observed as Watch Night, also known as Freedom's Eve. Church services commemorate the night before President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation became effective January 1, 1863, freeing slaves in Confederate-controlled areas. Slaves in other places did not gain their freedom until 1865 with the ratification of the 13th amendment (see also Emancipation Day and National Freedom Day).

Historical Background

On September 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation to free slaves in Confederate states and parts of states that had joined the Confederates. Lincoln declared that he would sign the proclamation making it official on January 1, 1863, if the Confederates did not rejoin the Union. The South continued the fight, and free blacks and slaves alike waited anxiously for the proclamation to become effective.

When December 31, 1862, arrived, slaves on some plantations met in praise houses, or if they were not allowed to congregate, they gathered secretly in cabins or in the woods to pray for freedom. In the North, African Americans and prominent abolitionists - white and black - gathered in churches to pray, sing, and wait hopefully for news from Washington, D.C.

According to one legend, in Boston, Massachusetts, where abolitionists had congregated at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church, a man came running down the aisle five minutes before midnight, crying out that the news was on the wire and emancipation was coming.

Creation of the Observance

After the original December 31 Watch Night or Freedom's Eve in 1862, annual commemorations took place, but they were sometimes dangerous events until slavery was fully abolished in 1865. Watch Night remains an important observance each year in countless black churches, although in recent decades some pastors have had to review the significance of the event for congregations unfamiliar with its historical background.

A Tragic New Year's Eve Ritual

Before New Year's Eve became a celebratory event, slave families dreaded the occasion. On the next day slave owners would balance their accounts. Some owners would sell their slaves in order to pay debts, and that could mean breaking up families. Thus New Year's Eve would be a heart-wrenching time, because there was always the possibility that family members would never see each other again.

Harriet Jacobs, who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, published for the author in 1861, described a mother's anguish on New Year's Eve:

She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother's instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother's agonies.

On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?" I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.


Before Watch Night services in African-American churches begin, there may be a feast that includes soul food - black-eyed peas, turnip greens, chicken, and other traditional dishes. African drummers and dancers might perform.

In many African-American churches, services on December 31 run from 9 or 10 P . M . to midnight or a little after, and feature prayer, singing, testimonies, and a sermon. A pastor or member of the congregation may recall the original Freedom's Eve. Just before midnight the lights in a church may be dimmed or turned off for prayer. As the new year comes in, the Emancipation Proclamation may be read. In places where ties to Africa are recognized, the service may include greeting the spirit, an ancient ritual in which a watchman keeps track of the movements of the moon for the exact time when midnight arrives.

Because Watch Night occurs during the seven-day Kwanzaa celebration, some services recognize the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, kuumba. Both Watch Night and Kwanzaa celebrate freedom and looking to the future. Another type of ritual on Watch Night takes place in Bolden, Georgia, an AfricanAmerican community near Eulonia. There, members of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, known as the McIntosh County Shouters, take part in the ring shout, a tradition that can be traced back to slavery and west African culture. The ring shout is a religious ceremony with holy dancing and shouts of praise to the Lord.

Many historians believed that the ring shout had died out completely in the United States, but the McIntosh County Shouters brought the tradition to light when they performed at the Georgia Sea Island Festival in 1980. The group includes African-American elders who have passed on the tradition from their enslaved forebears and are committed to preserving the practice.

Since its first public appearance in 1980, the group has been featured at many other venues around the United States, including the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Shouters also have appeared in documentaries, and their songs have been recorded on CDs.

For their stage performances, the McIntosh County Shouters recreate the ring shout as close to their traditional practice as possible. The group begins the dance with shuffling movements in a counterclockwise circle, never lifting or crossing their feet - foot-crossing is considered unholy. The New Georgia Encyclopedia describes the performance this way:

A "songster" will "set" or begin a song, slowly at first, then accelerating to an appropriate tempo. These lines will be answered by a group of singers called "basers" in call-and-response pattern. The stick-man, sitting next to the leader, will beat a simple rhythm with a broom or other wood stick, and the basers will add rhythm with hand clapping and foot patting. The songs are special shout songs, at one time called "running spirituals." For the most part they form a separate repertoire from spirituals, jubilees, and later gospel songs. Ranging from light-spirited to apocalyptic, at times they carry coded references to slavery. Sometimes participants pantomime the meaning of the verses being sung - for example, extending their arms in the "eagle wing" gesture to evoke friends urging a slave, Daniel, to fly from the master's whip.

Contacts and Web Sites

"African-American Odyssey: The Quest for Full Citizenship" National Digital Library

Reprinted with permission from The New Georgia Encyclopedia, , a project of the Georgia Humanities Council. Library of Congress 101 Independence Ave, SE Washington, DC 20540 202-707-5000

McIntosh County Shouters home page

"McIntosh County Shouters" New Georgia Encyclopedia, a project of the Georgia Humanities Council Main Library University of Georgia Athens, GA 30602

Further Reading

Gulevich, Tanya. "Watch Night." In Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Cele- brations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene. "Emancipation Day." In Patriotic Holidays of the United States. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2006. Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Edited by L. Maria Child. Boston: Published for the Author, 1861. Joyner, Marsha. "Gathering Place." Honolulu Star Bulletin, January 1, 2006. http://star Kachun, Mitch. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Watch Night

Type of Holiday: Religious (Protestant Christian), Historic
Date of Observation: December 31
Where Celebrated: United States
Symbols and Customs: Dinner, Emancipation Proclamation, Interruptions, Prayers, Singing, Shouters
Related Holidays: New Year's Eve


Watch Night takes place on NEW YEAR'S EVE. Watch Night celebrations began in Methodist and Moravian churches as a means of providing their congregations with a spiritual alternative to rowdy and drunken New Year's Eve celebrations. Today, Watch Night services are usually found in Methodist, Moravian, and evangelical Protestant churches, especially those with a largely African-American congregation. Watch Night services are modeled after the ancient Christian custom of holding a prayer service on the evening before an important feast day. These prayer services were called "vigils," a name that comes from the Latin word vigilia, meaning "to watch." The late-night services comply with biblical teachings urging the faithful to watch and wait for the coming of God (Matthew 25:1-13).

The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, did much to popularize Watch Night. He first observed Watch Night services in a Moravian Church when serving as an Anglican priest in Georgia from 1735 to 1737. Upon returning to Great Britain, he left the Church of England in order to found the Methodist Church. Methodists established the custom of holding Watch Night services monthly on the night of the full moon. The light of the moon made it easier for parishioners to find their way home after the service. English Methodists brought Watch Night services with them to the American colonies. The first Methodist Watch Night services in this country were scheduled in the year 1770. They took place at Wesley Chapel in New York City and also at St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

In the nineteenth century, monthly Watch Night services fell into decline. Methodist congregations began to schedule these services for NEW YEAR'S EVE instead. Pastors hoped that by doing so they could provide members of their congregation with a way to take stock of their spiritual and material lives on New Year's Eve, instead of abandoning themselves to drunken carousing. The custom of making New Year's resolutions, which are customarily aimed at self-improvement, comes from this religious movement to add a spiritual component to New Year's Eve. Methodist ministers also urged their congregations to meditate on the passing of time and their own mortality as they faced a new year, hopefully finding in this experience the inspiration to amend their lives. During the twentieth century, many Methodist congregations discontinued Watch Night services. In recent years, a new movement to reform New Year's Eve has produced another alternative celebration called "First Night."

Many African-American congregations have retained the custom of holding Watch Night services on New Year's Eve. This custom recalls the events that took place on Watch Night on December 31, 1862. That night, African Americans kept vigil, praying that a promise made to them 100 days earlier would be fulfilled. In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had announced that he intended to sign the E MANCIPATION P ROCLAMATION on January 1, 1863. The proclamation would officially abolish slavery in the United States.

Lincoln kept his promise and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Both black and white Americans who had opposed slavery celebrated the fulfillment of their hopes on January 1, 1863. One celebration took place in Boston, Massachusetts, where abolitionists planned a gala celebration at the city's music hall for that day. The event included a concert of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and a poetry recitation by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many well-known political and literary figures attended. Another celebration took place at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. The famous African-American orator Frederick Douglass attended that event. News that Lincoln had just signed the Proclamation came over the telegraph wires during the ceremony, prompting wild cheering from the audience. In Washington DC, the Proclamation was read aloud to the rejoicing congregation at the Israel Bethel church. Spontaneous parties broke out all over Washington as news spread that Lincoln had actually signed the proclamation into law.

As a result of these events, January 1st became known as Emancipation Day in African-American communities. Ever since that time, African Americans have associated Watch Night with the special history, culture, and concerns of their community. In many black churches, Watch Night begins with a soul food DINNER , followed by services with SINGING and PRAYERS . In some churches, the EMANCIPA TION PROCLAMATION is read at midnight.



Before Watch Night services begin, many African-American churches host a feast. The dinner typically features soul food, including black-eyed peas, turnip greens, chicken, and other traditional dishes. African drummers and dancers might perform.

Emancipation Proclamation

In many African-American churches, services on December 31 run from 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. to midnight or after. They feature prayer, singing, testimonies, and a sermon. In some churches, a pastor or a member of the congregation may recall the original Freedom's Eve and review the significance of events for congregants unfamiliar with its historical importance. Just before midnight, the lights may be dimmed or turned off for prayer. As the new year comes in, the Emancipation Proclamation is read.


In Moravian churches, carefully scheduled interruptions bring the service to a halt at midnight. As the hour approaches, the pastor usually begins a sermon. In some churches, the band starts to play when the clock strikes twelve. This blast from the band interrupts the pastor in the middle of his sermon. The bandleader usually selects the Moravian hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God" for this occasion. The abrupt interruption symbolizes the teaching that Christ may return at any moment and emphasizes the need for spiritual readiness. Another Moravian custom encourages the congregation to get up and leave at the stroke of midnight, even if the pastor is still speaking. This custom, too, represents spiritual readiness and the decision to respond immediately to the call of Christ.


Watch Night services encourage attendees to pray for themselves, their communities, and the world. Traditional prayer and meditation themes include improving one's life, increasing devotion to God, reflecting on one's mortality, and petitioning God for peace and justice at home and abroad.


Most Watch Night services include some form of hymn singing. Often the hymns emphasize such themes as steadfast faith, the grace and power of God, or the coming of Christ.


One uniquely American form of Watch Night singing was revived in the late twentieth century when the McIntosh County Shouters, an African-American singing group from Georgia, caught the public eye. These folk musicians had preserved a form of hymn singing called the "ring shout" that was practiced by African-American slaves. Before this group came to light, scholars believed that this art form had died out.

The ring shout is a form of hymn singing with circle dancing and shouts of praise to God thrown in. The singers begin by forming a circle and shuffling in a counterclockwise direction. They neither lift their feet from the ground nor cross their legs. A single singer begins a hymn, singing slowly at first and then speeding up. The other singers add rhythm by hand clapping, foot tapping, and stick beating, as they continue to move in a circular direction. The group singers answer the lead singer in a "call and response" pattern typical of African music. Some of the songs favored by ring shouters include veiled references to slavery and escape. The McIntosh County Shouters have been praised for preserving this African-American art form. They have released CDs, have performed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and have appeared on documentaries. In spite of their growing fame, they continue to perform at Watch Night services held at the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Bolden, Georgia.


Gay, Kathlyn. African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene. Patriotic Holidays of the United States. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2006. Kachun, Mitch. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Eman- cipation Celebrations. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.


African-American Odyssey: The Quest for Full Citizenship, Library of Congress

McIntosh County Shouters, Home Page

McIntosh County Shouters, New Georgia Encyclopedia, a project of the Georgia Humanities Council
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Watch Night (Bolden, Georgia)

December 31
Watch Night services are held every New Year's Eve at 10:00 p.m. at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in the village of Eulonia, near Bolden, Ga. The heart of the event is a "ring-shout" performance by the McIntosh County Shouters. Call-and-response singing, counter-clockwise dance movements, and interlocking rhythms created with hand-clapping and stick beating on the wooden floor are key elements of the ring-shout, which has indisputable roots in African tradition. The ring-shout was written about by outsiders as early as 1845, but many believed it had died out until this church's group of performers came to light in 1980. The McIntosh County Shouters have since been featured in concerts, on television, and on a CD. The Watch Night service is open to all.
Watch Night is a solemn yet joyful Christian vigil on the last night of the year in which hymns, testimonies, and prayers are shared. Because the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the United States went into effect at midnight on January 1, 1863, African Americans have invested the occasion with added significance. Some even refer to Watch Night as Freedom's Eve.
AAH-2007, pp. 413, 416
HolSymbols-2009, p. 1036

Celebrated in: Georgia

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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