On the last day of 1862, enslaved Africans throughout the country awaited a day that would grant them a new perspective on life, greater opportunities and most importantly, freedom.
They gathered in churches, houses and any safe space they could find to pray and celebrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. To the millions of blacks in the country it meant a permanent release from their enslavement.
Now, as people prepare for the coming of a new year with traditional celebrations such as parties, fireworks or spending time at home with family, many African Americans continue to celebrate their emancipation in churches everywhere with a Watch Night service.
At these services people from all backgrounds are invited to come out and celebrate their accomplishments of the past year and thank God in advance for their success in the coming year.
Choirs and soloists sing gospel songs, pastors often preach a short sermon, testimonies are given and people reunite with their church family until the new year arrives.
Though Watch Night services have a tie to African American history, they also have a history in the Methodist and Catholic churches, among others, and even link to the Bible.
“If you look at Isaiah 9:2, it talks about how the people were celebrating triumph, and they were being redeemed, and at this particular time, they celebrated how they had been brought out of slavery and into the light,” said Pastor Henry Taylor of Mt. Alban Missionary Baptist Church. “It was also customary for our ancestors to celebrate Watch Night services. Someone did it in their house to usher the old year out and the new year in, and they were asking our ancestors for direction.”
The primary purpose of a Watch Night service, to celebrate the past and bring in the new, has not changed much. Most people that gather at these services are well aware of the meaning.
“The elders, or the people that have been around for a long time, I think they come out for the true meaning of a Watch Night service of knowing what it means to be set free,” he said. “For instance, it’s like voting. Some people don’t understand the importance of voting but once they do they can appreciate it better.”
Though many people have other New Year’s Eve traditions, Watch Night services provide an alternative to drinking or partying.
“I think it’s important to come out to these services because the Lord has brought us all from a mighty long way,” Taylor said. “When you think back over your life about the things that God has brought you through down through the years, I think it’s very important to, at Watch Night service, thank God for what has happened and praise Him for what is about to take place in your life.”
A few of the Watch Night services taking place in Vicksburg are listed below.
Mt. Alban Missionary Baptist Church
Starts at: 7 p.m. Dec. 31
Located at: 2385 Mt. Alban Rd.
Unity Temple Full Gospel Church
Starts at: 10 p.m. Dec. 31
Located at: 2372 Grove St.
Living Word Baptist Church
Starts at: 10 p.m. Dec. 31
Located at: 1401 Farmer St.