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. Night watch service is still a tradition among Christians today. We have gone to Night Watch Service for many years. As described in the article we have singing, praying and preaching to bring in the new year and to reflect on the past year. I love that this is also the time all those years ago that African Americans gained the freedoms that they deserve.

  2. Watch night service is still held among Christians today. I was raised in a church in which we had watch service and we continue to do so. I felt a deepening appreciation and a realization of how it was actually developed among African Americans. Most traditions are the same with singing, preaching, and reflecting on that night but I can only imagine the liberty and freedom they felt 160 years ago.

  3. I enjoyed reading this article because I have never heard of night watch services. I like the idea of reflecting of upon the previous year. I think it is also important to learn about the history of traditions. It gives you insight on why they are celebrated, and who celebrates it. 

  4. Reading this article about the Watch Night Services has made me realize how important it is as teachers to teach our students about ALL holiday celebrations. This is a tradition I have never heard of, and I enjoyed reading about. It was is important to note as well, the history behind this tradition. Night Watch Celebrations that occur now may just be about looking back and reflecting on the past year, but the true meaning behind the celebration is even more important. As a teacher I could have my students explore this holiday tradition during the holiday seasons, and also incorporate the American Civil War aspect into my teaching as well.

  5. I like the tradition of going to mass and reflecting upon your previous year. I like the history behind this, and I would like to adopt it into my life. I think it’s really interesting that we weren’t taught in high school that New Year’s Eve is actually Freedom Eve.

  6. I think all of these traditions you write about are very interesting. I have never heard of any of them which is a shame because I think it is important for everyone to know all of the different traditions from all sorts of cultures.

  7. The Watch Night Service that occurs on New Years Eve is a great concept. I like how it gives you the opportunity to reflect on your past year and prepare as you go into the new year. I must admit I have not heard of this service in the past, but I really like the idea of it. It is shocking to me that it dates back to the Civil War and I am just now becoming aware of this, this needs to me known to more people.

  8. I grew up in church and knew little about watch night service, so actually learning about it is interesting and I want to know more. The connection it has to the American Civil War, black history, and so much more is amazing and I want to learn more.

  9. I am not a religious person in the slightest, but growing up, I was read the bible, and I did attend a few church services. With this being said, I have never heard of Watch Night Services before now, and I thank you for writing this article about them because it gives me good information that I would not have known.

  10. As a person they grew up in the Church, Watch night service isn’t new to me. But i never knew the reason why we do it and where it originated from. After reading this article, Ive realized how important it is to ask questions and do research on why we do certain things in the church. It’s one thing to do it, but its another thing to do it but know why we are doing it.

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