Significance of Watch Night and New Year’s Day Celebrations For African Americans

By John L. Horton

“Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I shall try to give you some anecdotal background on my experience with “Watch Night – Freedom’s Eve,” and the like:My first experience with and knowledge of “Watch Night – Freedom’s Eve” was in the late 1940s.

I was born September 20, 1940, and raised in the “Colored” communities and churches of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Cedartown, Georgia.

My birth certificate and those of my parents and grandparents still identify us as “Coloreds.” (Those were the laws of the times in Tennessee and Georgia.)

In many of the homes and communities of “Colored” people were the pictures/portraits of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln in places of honor and recognition.

Lincoln was recognized as the “Earthly Father,” who had freed the slaves/Colored people.

On New Year’s Eve, many Colored churches and communities celebrated “Freedom’s Eve,” or the night before Lincoln (supposedly) freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, with the “Emancipation Proclamation.”

Usually, there was praying, shouting, singing, dancing, and feasting. (Believe me, this was a lively celebration and a joyous occasion for everyone in attendance.)

The names of Jesus and Lincoln were always given special significance and adulatory praise.

In essence, Jesus and Lincoln were, at this time, the Heavenly and Earthly Fathers, who had freed the slaves/Colored people.

It was some years later that I more fully understood and comprehended the significance and essence of this annual celebration and observance.

To this day, many Black churches and communities have continued this venerable tradition and historical event.

Also, it is fair to say that many others have no knowledge of and/or interest in “Watch Night – Freedom’s Eve.”

In most cases, this is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of its history and significance, especially for Black people.

Accordingly, this is “why” I have written about “Watch Night – Freedom’s Eve” to share its significance and essence with Black and other peoples:

 

Wednesday, December 31, 1862, the first Watch Night Services were celebrated by free and freed Blacks throughout the nation. This celebration took these Black descendants of slaves into the New Year with praise, worship and resolution.

 

This “Watch Night” tradition in the African-American community grew out of gatherings on December 31, 1862, also called “Freedom’s Eve.”  African Americans gathered all across the nation awaiting the news of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863).  I can just imagine the joy and jubilation that our ancestors felt upon hearing that African Americans were “legally free.” (President Lincoln’s Emancipation freed all slaves except those in states and/or parts of states not in rebellion against the Union.)

 

Watch Night is now celebrated throughout the African-American community.  However, we must never forget the reasons and realities for its existence.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say: “Free at last, free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  What a night of anticipation December 31, 1862 must have been!  What a day of celebration January 1, 1863 must have been!

 

By understanding and fulfilling the true essence of Watch Night, African Americans will be able to better resolve the challenges and obstacles that lie before us as a people over 155 years later.  Notwithstanding our special uniqueness in American history, it is now time – in the New Year and New Millennium – to transform ourselves and attain our greatest potential.  It can be done.  All we need to do is work “harder and smarter” at it.

 

Among other things, we must love and respect ourselves, individually and collectively.  Simply put, we need to be at the forefront of resolving those familial and social ills that afflict our children and communities.  This “empowerment process” recognizes that we are primarily responsible for what happens to us.  And, if things are to drastically change, then it is primarily up to us to make it happen.

 

For African Americans, these are some of the reasons to celebrate and the lessons to be learned from Watch Night and New Year’s Day observances throughout the nation.  Otherwise, we will be guilty of not remembering our special past and unique history.  To rightly commemorate the significance and jubilation of Watch Night, December 31, 1862, and Emancipation Day, January 1, 1863, we must continue to march forward and at a rapid pace.  We owe this much to our ancestors and to our future.”

 

All in all, what a grand and glorious way to celebrate Watch Night and New Year’s Day.  This historical night/day of liberation should have everlasting meaning for all of us…as a nation and a people.  And, let us continue to pass on the joy and jubilation of our ancestors on December 31, 1862 and January 1, 1863.  Long live “Watch Night” and all that it stands for!  And, may the New Year and New Millennium bless us all!

 

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