When one thinks about New Year’s Eve, noisemakers, party hats, and kisses at midnight come to mind. But historically, in the African American community, two particular things come to mind: Watch Nights and Black-Eyed Peas.
At Break of Dawn. A collective of people rallying together in unity. The saints sounding a righteous gospel in anticipation.
What great event is taking place? No, it is not a New Year’s Eve part. No, it is not the Rapture. It is “Watch Night.”
Watch nights have a particular place in African American history.
According to early historic accounts, the first Watch night service was held on December 31st, 1862 known as “Freedom’s Eve”. The African American Registry website accounts, “The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as ‘Freedom’s Eve.’ On that night, Black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and private homes across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law…At the stroke of midnight, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God.”
However, not every slave was freed, as the origins of Juneteenth would later demonstrate. But nevertheless, Watch Night services became a tradition in the African American community. Today, many African American churches host services the night of New Year’s Eve to pray in and welcome the New Year.
A popular cuisine that is often associated with New Year’s Eve are Black eyed peas.
One simply cannot have a traditional soul food meal without Black-Eyed peas.
Amanda Galiano, in her 2019 Tripsavvy article, “Why Southerners Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s Day”, writes, “Most Southerners will tell you that this culinary custom date back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food. The peas were not deemed worthy of serving to General Sherman's Union troops…Black-eyed peas were also given to enslaved people, as were most other traditional southern New Year's foods and evolved through the years to be considered ‘soul food.’"
Watch Nights and Black-eyed peas today are viewed as a symbol of good luck when preparing for New Year’s Eve. Tradition is rich in the African American community and these two items are great examples of such. Often viewed as the thread that connects things old and new, if it is one thing African American history has taught, it is that from tradition comes rejoice and renewal.