The Historical Legacy of Watch Night
It is a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine . . . are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn up on us. Frederick Douglass December 31, 1862
On the night of December 31, 1862, enslaved and free African Americans gathered, many in secret, to ring in the new year and await news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. Just a few months earlier, on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the executive order that declared enslaved people in the rebelling Confederate States legally free. However, the decree would not take effect until the clock struck midnight at the start of the new year. The occasion, known as Watch Night or “Freedom's Eve,” marks when African Americans across the country watched and waited for the news of freedom. 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.
Watch Night service is rooted in African American religious traditions. During the first Watch Night, many enslaved African Americans gathered to pray, worship, sing, and dance. At the time, enslaved black people could find little respite from ever-present surveillance, even in practicing their faith. White enslavers feared that religion, which was often used to quell slave resistance, could incite the exact opposite if practiced without observance. They wrote laws that restricted worship and large gatherings, such as that in the 1848 Georgia Slave Code:
No person of color . . . shall be allowed to preach, to exhort, or join in any religious exercise with any persons of color, either free or slave, there being more than seven persons of color present. 1848 Georgia Slave Code
Despite these laws, enslaved people sought to exercise their own religious customs, including Christianity, Islam, and indigenous faith practices reflective of the homes from which they were stolen. They convened at praise houses on plantations or secretly gathered in the woods, where they practiced their faith under the protective cover of the trees and brush in what became known as “hush harbors.” As Charlotte Martin, a formerly enslaved woman from Florida, recounted, “[The plantation owner] would not permit them to hold religious meetings or any other kinds of meetings, but they frequently met in secret to conduct religious services.” Charlotte’s own brother was beaten to death for participating in such secret worship meetings. But enslaved people persisted in their faith practices as forms of resistance and freedom.
This spirit is still visible in Watch Night services today. The Watch Night service typically begins around 7pm on December 31 and lasts through midnight, as faith leaders guide congregants in praise and worship. Many congregants across the nation bow in prayer minutes before the midnight hour as they sing out “Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night.” In return the minister replies “it is three minutes to midnight”; “it is one minute before the new year”; and “it is now midnight, freedom has come,” to bless their transition into the new year.
The occasion is customarily marked by celebrations of fellowship and a worship service, followed by a fortuitous meal on New Year’s Day. Celebratory foods include a diverse collection of culinary traditions that can be traced back to Southern superstition, influenced by beliefs across West Africa. Chief among these foodways is the practice of eating collard greens, representing the promise of prosperity, and eating black-eyed peas with rice, also known as Hoppin’ John. Traditionally, Hoppin’ John consists of black-eyed peas, rice, red peppers, and salt pork, and it is believed to bring good fortune to those who eat it. Before finding its way into American traditions, the black-eyed pea (also known as cowpea) traveled from Central Africa to the West Indies and finally to the Carolinas in the early 1700s. Many West African cultures regard the pea as lucky, and memories of its luck remained with enslaved black people in the American South and still endure today. Though Hoppin’ John is a common dish prepared for Watch Night, the foods prepared in observance of the tradition are incredibly diverse and reflective of regional, temporal, and cultural differences within the African American community. Some other common dishes include: candied yams, cornbread, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese.
Initially meant to welcome emancipation, today the Watch Night service encourages reflection on the history of slavery and freedom, as well as reflection on the past year—both its trials and triumphs—while also anticipating what the new year will have in store. It is a continuation of generations of faith that freedom and renewal lie ahead.