Many religions set aside a day on which to watch and wait for the beginning of a new year. Jesus and his early followers would have observed Yom Teruah (now known as Rosh Hashanah), a Jewish holiday marking the start of the calendar year and commemorating the creation of the world. But in 45 BCE, Julius Caesar declared January 1 as the official start of the year across the Roman Empire, and over time, that date began to be adopted by communities all over the world, even if they already had a different New Year’s Day that they celebrated for religious or other reasons.
Eventually, Christians began to hold times for prayer, worship, and rededication beginning on the evening of December 31 and ending on the morning of January 1, which they commonly called “Watch Night.” The tradition continues to this day, especially among African American Christians. In these Watch Night celebrations, congregations both recall the original New Year commemorations and celebrate the enacting of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed into law on New Year’s Day, 1863.
On New Year’s Eve, 1862, enslaved people gathered at their churches to wait for President Lincoln to sign that crucial document. They read scripture, ate together, sang songs, and prayed that, when the sun rose in the morning, a new day would dawn where they would be free. From that time on, New Year’s Eve Watch Night celebrations became matters of great importance to many African American Christian communities.
To both assist African American communities in introducing Watch Night celebrations to children and others who may be unfamiliar with the tradition, and to equip Christians who aren’t African American to understand the history and significance of these celebrations, I partnered with Sparkhouse Digital to create an intergenerational resource that can be used by congregations wishing to hold their own special event to mark the coming of the new year. This is accessible with a subscription or free trial to Sparkhouse Digital. The event is an approximately three-hour New Year’s Eve event with a shared meal, small group activity stations, and a closing worship, designed to teach participants about the history of Watch Night, especially as it relates to slavery and emancipation in the United States. It is my hope that, by participating in this event, children and families of many races may be invited into communal and individual contemplation of how to actively watch and wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises of freedom for all people in ways that center the needs of the most vulnerable. If you have questions about how this event might best be implemented in your context, please feel free to connect with me at https://www.facebook.com/jessicadaviscc.