Watch Night, which takes places on the night of New Year’s Eve, is a church service and is a time of deep reflection and introspection. It provides Christians the opportunity look back over the year that has passed, make confession and prepare for the year ahead.
These services originated through John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. They were also referred to as Covenant Renewal Services. Watch Night services gave Methodist Christians a godly alternative to the drunken madness that occurred in the secular community on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. According to Rev. J. Edgard Boyd , senior minister of First AME Church, at the first watch night service, “The people met at half-past eight. The house was filled from end to end, and we concluded the year wrestling with God in prayer.”
These services now include singing, prayers and testimonies, along with scriptures read silently and out loud. Those who attend this service have the opportunity to reflect on their relationship with Christ throughout the year, share their testimonies with others and look inwardly in anticipation of the year ahead.
While the Watch Night service has its roots in the Methodist church, these services have a particular significance in the African-American community and black churches. For African-Americans, it a celebration of Emancipation. Many slaves gathered in churches on New Year’s on Dec. 31 1862 1862 to await confirmation of their freedom through the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. On that first Watch Night, abolitionists and others waited for word via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth that freedom had been issued.
Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History explained Watch night in this way: "A lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community. Yet for a people largely held in bondage, freedom is a powerful idea — and that's what the Watch Night tradition embodies.” After that night, people talked about how they were going to stay up for the New Year because they were celebrating the freedom of African-Americans. The night symbolizes not only freedom, but also real hope and change.
More than one hundred and fifty years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of Christians will join family and church members to pray and thank God for another year. In the past, it was traditional to hear an anthem, a spiritual or a gospel at these services. It has now become a tradition for men, women and children to spend five minutes before midnight kneeling, holding hands and praying to God not only for the present but also for the New Year. They will pray away the old, and bring in the new. The Watch Night service is particularly relevant now for people in the black community because of the stuggles they still face and endure. This service allows reflection and release.
The significance of Watch Night for people of faith, particularly African-American people of faith cannot be denied. What’s so beautiful about the Watch Night tradition is what it embodies. For a group that was previously in bondage and is largely marginalized, the idea of freedom is powerful. This night provides a space for many to be reminded of their freedom and the significance behind it. It also serves as a reminder that there is still a long for us to go to get where we need to be. But on this night, we are reminded, there is hope.
If you haven’t before, think about attending a Watch Night service. If your church doesn’t have one, you can search online for churches in your area that have them. Thank God not only for allowing you to wake up another day but also for the freedoms that have been bestowed upon you. Without God, nothing is possible and with God all things are possible.