Blogs > Cliopatria > How do African-Americans traditionally ring in the New Year?

Dec 31, 2005 5:35 pm

How do African-Americans traditionally ring in the New Year?

... [A]t many African-American churches here and across the country, the celebrations [ringing in the New Year] are ... known as Watch Night services, when members gather to ring in the new year and, historically, to celebrate their freedom from slavery.

While Watch Night is primarily an African-American observance, emancipation is a universal theme that permeates New Year's Eve celebrations, whether at places of worship or private parties, said Love Henry Whelchel Jr., professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

While the African-American Watch Night is a celebration of freedom, it did not begin that way, Whelchel said. It started as a night of expectation.

In the early months of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln's primary goal was to preserve the Union. On Sept. 22, 1862, Whelchel said, he threatened that if the Confederacy did not stop fighting and return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, he would then sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

So on Dec. 31, 1862, black people who could gathered in churches from Boston to South Carolina to await news of the signing.

Sometime around 11:55 p.m., Whelchel said, legend has it that in Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston --- where many prominent abolitionists were gathered --- a man started running down the aisle. "It's coming!" he yelled. "It's on the wire. It's coming." When the clock struck 12:01, it was true. Someone, Whelchel said, shouted, "God may not come when you want him, but he's always on time." Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate states.

"That was our jubilee," said Whelchel. "It was a very exciting time.''

Whelchel, a former church pastor, was first introduced to the history of Watch Night as a little boy growing up in Macon. Every New Year's Day without fail, he and his father attended services at Holsey Temple Christian Methodist Church, where "all the great orators" would tell the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, he said.

"It was what inspired me to become a historian," he said....

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