Valdosta Daily Times

December 30, 2013

Watch Night recalls a free New Year

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — As many people gather Tuesday night to toast the New Year, several local African-American churches will open their doors to pray in the New Year.

For these churches, New Year’s Eve is often called “Watch Night,” a traditional service for many black churches of the South. Watch Night is believed to have descended from two African-American traditions.

The most common root of its origin is linked to Dec. 31, 1862, as black churches waited for word of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. In many cases, black congregations joined by white abolitionists throughout both the North and South waited well into New Year’s Day 1863 for word that Lincoln had signed the Proclamation into law.

Joy and celebration greeted Lincoln’s words in many African-American churches. “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States,” the Proclamation read, “and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be, free.”

African-American congregations, especially those in the South, already had a tradition of gathering on New Year’s Eve prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. They often met on New Year’s Eve because New Year’s Day for many black people in the slave-era South was known as “Heartbreak Day,” according to Valdosta State University history professor Dr. David Williams in his book, “A People’s History of the Civil War.”

New Year’s Day was often the day when slaveholders sold slaves, when families, parents and children, husbands and wives, were separated. Slaves gathered on New Year’s Eve because that may be the last time many families had the opportunity to be together.

In the decades since slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, Watch Night has evolved into an evening that honors the past, celebrates family fellowship, and takes an opportunity to re-dedicate people’s lives to Christ.

Here is a list of Watch Night services sent to The Times:

• Watch Night Service, 10 p.m. Tuesday, New Life Ministries, 5651 Inner Perimeter Road, Valdosta.

• Watch Night Service, 9 p.m. Tuesday, You’re Good Enough For Jesus Ministries, 620 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Valdosta.

• Watch Night Services, 10 p.m.-midnight Tuesday, Second Oak Baptist Church. Breakfast will be served after services.

— Watch Night Services, 10 p.m. Tuesday, Friendship Freewill I.B.C., Refreshments served after services.

— Watch Night Service, 10 p.m. Tuesday, Mount Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Quitman. Guest Church: Graham Chapel CME.