Watch Night Services: African American Religious New Year’s Traditions

Black Southern Belle's-

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

We want to continue our tradition of highlighting cultural diversity in holiday traditions. We must continue to find ways to expand and diversify our understanding of American history and culture. One practice we would like to highlight is the Watch Night Service tradition in the Black community that takes place on New Year’s Eve.

Watch Night Service dates back to 1862-

Watch Night Services in Christian Traditions
The term Watch Night Service (also called Watch Night Mass) is a religious tradition whereby Christians attend an annual New Year’s Eve worship service. The yearly church service provides Christians the opportunity to reflect upon the past year, using what they have learned to equip them for the new year. Watch Night Services often include preaching, lay exhortation, singing, praying and the taking of Holy Communion. Many different Christian denominations hold late night services on New Year’s Eve, which is the seventh day of Christmastide

Watch Night Services as Historic Black Religious Tradition
African Americans have a strong tradition of New Year’s Eve watch night services that is heavily rooted in black cultural history, dating back to the American Civil War. On December 31, 1862, late in the evening enslaved and free African Americans gathered in their homes and churches, to “watch” and ring in the new year, awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had legally taken effect. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order that freed enslaved people in the states rebelling against the union. But the legislation would not take effect until midnight January 1, 1863. On that night African Americans across the country watched and waited for the news of freedom, this established the historic Black Watch Night Service (Also called Freedom’s Eve) that is still widely practiced in contemporary times. Today, Watch Night is an annual New Year’s Eve tradition that includes the memory of slavery and freedom, reflections on faith, and celebration of community and strength.


  1. After reading this article, I gained a lot of knowledge about what The Night Service really was. A better understanding of this topic as I didn’t have much about The night services. I really liked the fact that you mentioned in your articles “Historic Black Religious Tradition”. As this is an important topic to teach in the classroom and as well as outside the classroom. These night services were a way of peace for some of these people as in Christians, African Americans, and so many more people from different backgrounds. They sang, preached, prayed, and took Holy Communion. Dating back as late as The American Civil War, this is how important this type of tradition really was. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I had no idea that this was something that was practiced. I have grown up in the church my whole life and even have learned a lot on the Civil War. This was something new that I learned though. I feel like this is crucial to know and even to teach because it shows how big of a deal the Emancipation Proclamation was and the parallel it has with the Christian faith!

  3. I enjoyed reading about the Watch Night Service tradition, it was honestly something I heard very little about, so I enjoyed learning more about them. I enjoyed learning about the differences in the Christian traditions and Historic Black Religious tradition when it comes to Watch Night Services, I personally have only ever been to five Watch Night Services at my church before I stopped going to church.

  4. I think informing others about cultural diversity in holiday traditions is a must. I think that learning about other cultures and their traditions is fun and just good knowledge to have. I think the tradition of Watch Night Service is interesting and sounds like a normal church service, but I know it holds more to it than that.

  5. I attend a Pentecostal church and we have what we call a watch night service every new years eve. I had never even heard about the reasons behind why this tradition was originally started. I think this is a really neat thing to read about and I can’t even imagine how amazing and exciting that original night must have been. Waiting together to celebrate the Emancipation Prelamination. The freedom and excitement they must have felt.

  6. prior to reading this i had never heard of night services, im glad i got to read and learn more about night service. i find it fascinating that it dates back as far as the civil war, i think its great that its still practiced.

  7. This was very interesting and great to watch. I did not know that this was an annual “tradition”, but I find it very cool to watch the expressions of the freedom on peoples faces when celebrating the rebellion against the union.

  8. I truly have never heard of Watch Night! After reading this and finding out the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t go in affect until the 1st of January was something I never knew, and I definitely didn’t know that the black community celebrated New Years Eve like that.

  9. I feel as if the cultural diversity of celebrating holidays has slowly changed to try and distance the origin of the different cultural tradition, shift towards practices that are accepted in a politically correct atmosphere. For instance, watch night services meaning used to serve an importance of remembering history now it shifts towards a time of being together.

  10. I have never heard of watch night services. I have many friends who are very religious African-Americans so I will have to ask them or their parents about it. I feel like the older generations would be more inclined to do this than the younger ones.

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