Watch Night: A tradition of hope

“Thankful joy, hopeful anticipation,” is the way the Rev. Charles Heyard describes the tradition of watching the year end — and welcoming the new one. He said the pews at St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island will be filled and overflowing for the New Year’s Eve service.

In the final minutes of the year, a leader calls out "Watchman. Watchman. Can you please tell me the hour of the night?"

The leader will ask the watchman that question several times. The first time, his answer will be 5 minutes to midnight; the second, 4 minutes to midnight; the third, 3 minutes and so forth.

It's a scene that will be repeated in African-American churches around the country.

When the watchman says 1 minute to midnight, and begins to count down the seconds, the church will go dark, and the people will go down on their knees. They will pray the old year out and the new one in. When the New Year is announced, they will rise jubilantly.

Up through the 1950s, African-Americans on James Island would walk down its dusty roads to the community praise house, pretty much they way they had done since slavery, said Carolyn "Jabulile" White. From about 9 p.m. to midnight, those tiny worship places would be alive with joyful noises, she said.

The people would shout, sing and pray. The structures frequently were built low to the ground with bare floors, and dust would rise when the faithful moved and beat the floor with a stick, keeping rhythm.

Back then, they called the event Watch Night. They still do.

It's a tradition that can be traced back to Freedom's Eve services, on Dec. 31, 1862, when those enslaved anticipated Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation the following day -- a major step toward their freedom.

While residents of some states disputed Lincoln's authority to free slaves in rebellious areas, blacks were full of faith and hope.

White, 74, has experienced many Watch Nights, she said. The older folks begin raising the hymns and testifying to the goodness of God, White said. When one finishes, they may say "Catch hold now! Catch hold!" and another will pick up where they leave off.

"It was strictly coming out to give God thanks for what they'd come through during the year and being glad to see another year," said White.

Since the '60s, the place has become the church and the praise houses have faded away. Watch Night elements remain, but often a short sermon and songs from the choir have been added.

Long-held tradition

The Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church, said there are two beliefs on the origin of Watch Night among African Americans.

One is that traditions that existed during slavery evolved into the Watch Night observance. The other is that Watch Night started with Freedom's Eve gatherings, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was read.

"It is overwhelmingly African-American" as observed in the United States today, Darby said. He is not aware of any denomination that requires the Watch Night observance, he said; it is a church-by-church decision.

"For a lot of the people who embrace Watch Night, there is something very spiritual about noting that transition from year to year," Darby said.

At Morris Brown, there is a bigger turnout on Watch Night than there is on Easter Sunday.

"The young adults lead now," Darby said. The observance might be somewhat different than expected because of their influence.

Those who attend can expect to hear anything from contemporary songs to traditional spirituals. In fact, once the watchman (women also serve at Morris Brown) announces that the New Year has arrived, they welcome it with a calypso-inspired song.

"The only hard and fast thing is some acknowledgement of midnight," Darby said. "And I have seen a couple (of Watch Night services) where they just roll right on through midnight. It's not a liturgical event, but in most historically black churches it had become a tradition."

'Based on hope'

About 15 years ago, Penn Center began to encourage churches to incorporate the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation during Watch Night services, said Emory Campbell, former executive director of Penn Center.

The center has its foundation in Penn School, among the first institutions to help blacks make the transition from slavery to freedom.

Charlotte Forten, an African-American teacher at Penn School, mentions the Watch Night observance there in her diary, Campbell said.

Too few people consider Watch Night as historically significant these days, Campbell said. Everybody talks about the belief that eating hoppin' john (a rice dish cooked with field peas) will bring luck and collard greens will bring money.

The church is a different setting than the old praise houses that dotted Hilton Head and were home to Watch Night services as Campbell grew up, he said. But in spirit, the observance remains the same.

"All of it is based on hope. It was such a struggle for black people that the New Year always brought hope. People were hopeful that things would be better."

Watch Night at home

In the city, families that didn't have a car, and were unable to walk to a church for Watch Night, still observed it.

"We had Watch Night at home," said Cynthia McCottry-Smith, who is in her late 80s and grew up on the Charleston peninsula. "We would surround the big stove in the dining room and at 5 minutes to 12 everybody was on their knees. Each one would pray and then my grandmother would pray. My grandmother could pray.

"She would praise him. She would thank him for the good and the bad that had happened in the last year.

"Then, she would ask the Lord to bless all of us in the New Year. She would call each of us by name."

Her grandmother would pray until midnight, then they would greet each other with "Happy New Year!" McCottry-Smith said.

"We would eat hoppin' john for luck and greens for money. My mother would give us eggnog she made in the glasses from the china closet."

In late '50s the family started observing Watch Night in church, said McCottry-Smith.

Tonight, the New Year will find many African-Americans on their knees, thanking God for what they believe he did in the old year, as well as for what their faith tells them he will do in the new.


Watch Night: A New Year's Eve observance in Protestant African-American churches during which congregants thank God openly for his goodness in the old year and ask for his blessings in the new. It includes a countdown to the New Year and an acknowledgement of the moment it commences.

Origin: Watch Night among African-Americans can be traced to Freedom's Eve services, held Dec. 31, 1862, as slaves anticipated the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863, saying those in rebellious states were free.

Other Watch Nights: Moravians, a small Christian denomination with roots in the Czech Republic, started observing a Watch Night to renew their covenant with God in 1733. Methodists started holding monthly Watch Night services in 1770 for the same purpose.

Geography: African-American Protestants across the United States observe Watch Night, usually in churches, but sometimes in their homes.

Watch Night services in Charleston tonight include: