Some Americans refer to New Year’s Eve as Watch Night. The name comes from the tradition of attending lengthy church vigils, called Watch Night services, on this evening. Watch Night services begin late in the evening on December 31 and continue through midnight. They usually feature singing, prayers and sermons. Attendees are encouraged to review their behavior in the year that has just passed, to renew their commitment to God in the year to come, and to pray for themselves, their families, and the world (see also RESOLUTIONS). New Year’s Eve Watch Night services got their start in the Methodist and Moravian churches. Today they are most often found in evangelical Protestant churches, especially those whose congregations are composed primarily of African Americans.
Vigils — church services held on the evening before an important feast day—can be traced back to early Christian times. The Watch Night service adapts this church custom to New Year’s Eve, a secular holiday. The word “vigil” comes from the Latin term vigilia, which means “to watch.” When English Methodists began holding late-night services in the eighteenth century they called them Watch Night services.
MAKING NEW YEAR’S EVE A RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY
In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement known as the Reformation gave birth to Protestant Christianity. A group of early Protestant Christians known as the PURITANS found fault with many holiday celebrations, including those that took place on New Year’s Eve. In particular they objected to the heavy drinking, masking (see also MASQUE; MUMMING), gaming, gambling, dancing, and public carousing that characterized the celebration of the holiday. They found these customs coarse and viewed them as contrary to the behavior that they believed should characterize a Christian society.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries evangelical Protestant leaders, such as those belonging to the newly formed Methodist denomination, took up the campaign to reform New Year’s Eve celebra-tions. They tried to give the holiday a religious significance by urging their followers to use the occasion to examine their spiritual lives and to resolve to do better in the coming year. Watch Night services provided worshipers an opportunity to meditate and pray on these issues. The late-night services could easily be linked to biblical teachings by referring to passages from Christian scripture that admonish the faithful to be awake and alert for the hour of Christ’s coming (for example, Matthew 25:1-13). Watch Night services became popular among American evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century.
METHODIST WATCH NIGHT SERVICES
John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, first observed Watch Night services among Moravian Christians. These services inspired him to approve of similar observances for Methodists (for more on Moravian Christmas customs, see CHRISTMAS IN BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA; CHRISTINGLE; LOVEFEAST; PUTZ). He first met Moravians on his sea voyage to the American colonies, where he served from 1735 to 1737 as an Anglican priest in Georgia. He continued to have contact with Moravians upon his return to ENGLAND, where he broke away from the Church of England to form the Meth-odist Church.
The first Watch Night services convened by British Methodists were held monthly on the night of the full moon and were often attended by those who sought an alternative to carousing at the local pub. The service emphasized renewal of one’s commitment to Christ. The light of the moon permitted worshipers to walk home safely after midnight when the service had concluded. Later the Methodist Church added New Year’s Eve Watch Night services, also presented as an alternative to the boisterous and alcohol-laden celebrations taking place on the streets and in the taverns.
English Methodists brought the Watch Night service with them to the American colonies. The first Watch Night services to be convened by American Methodists took place at Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Church and at NEW YORK CITY’s Wesley Chapel in November of 1770.
In the nineteenth century monthly Watch Night services declined in popularity while New Year’s Eve Watch Night services found favor in both British and American Methodist churches. During the twentieth century, however, the New Year’s Eve Watch Night service began to fall out of favor in Methodist congregations composed primarily of European Americans. In recent years, a secular attempt to reform New Year’s Eve has produced a new alternative to traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations: the FIRST NIGHT festival.
Among African Americans the Watch Night service has spread beyond Methodist congregations and into other Protestant churches. In some black churches Watch Night services take on a somber tone, as people consider the passing of time and their own mortality. Inspiring sermons, along with plenty of opportunities to sing and pray, round out the experience.
African-American slaves who attended Watch Night services on December 31,1862, may have felt their prayers were answered the following day (see also SLAVES’ CHRISTMAS). On January 1,1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing over three million slaves. Some African-American communities still celebrate January 1 as EMANCIPATION DAY.
A few Moravian congregations also continue to hold Watch Night services. According to Moravian tradition, the pastor should begin a sermon as midnight approaches. As the clock strikes midnight a trombone choir or other kind of band cuts the sermon off in mid-stream. The pastor abandons his or her unfinished speech and joins the congregation in singing the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The interruption symbolizes the teaching that Christ could return at any minute and reminds everyone of the need for constant spiritual readiness. In another form of this tradition the congregation stands up and leaves the church at midnight, in the middle of the pastor’s sermon. In past times Moravian Watch Night services also included a review of the year’s most important events, but this custom has been abandoned.