Watch Night December 31, Built on Thousands of Years of Diverse Traditions
What is Night Watch?
In 1642, Rembrandt depicted officers of armies of both Dutch Catholics and Dutch Protestants remaining awake all night in order to fend off any attacking Spanish Catholic troops. The result was his famous painting "Night Watch", displaying the military and religious nature of the event in Europe. Christian churches in other places adopted the name and changed it to "Watch Night" for celebrating a New Year's Eve vigil.
First Peoples Held the First Watch Night
Several groups lay claim to inventing Watch Night for New Year's Eve, but the actual beginnings of the celebration in America traces back to the Iroquois Confederacy and its week-long Cold Moon or Midwinter Festival in January.This celebration is a spiritual tradition that is thousands of years old, observed not only by the Iroquois, but also by the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest and even by some Southwest US groups.
To this older celebration, Americans have added the Moravian concept, which is the next advent of the celebration on the timeline, followed by the Traditions of John Wesley and the Methodist Church, and finally, American slaves awaiting the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect with a vigil on Freedom's Eve on 12/31/1862.
Many communities ignore the Indigenous, Moravian, and Methodist histories of Watch Night and claim it totally for the African/African American slaves who waited for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. This does a disservice to the long history that preceded 1862.
Origins of Watch Night
Date of Origin
Kwakiutl, Iroquois Confederation
12,000 BC or earlier
Moravians and Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Hernhut, Germany.
December 31, 1862
Modern, post WWII Christian churches
First Night: December 31, 1975
First Night: December 31, 1995
Hundreds of cities globally
The Native North American Watch
Showing of the Founders' Masks at PotlatchClick thumbnail to view full-size
Although the practice began in the Pacific Northwest millennia ago, the Iroquois Confederacy Midwinter Ceremony is held in January after December’s Full Cold Moon.That the ceremony occurs in both places is a marker for migration of the Native North Americans of the northwest lands to the eastern woodlands over thousands of years.
When the Pleiades and the Big Dipper becomes clear at night just overhead and the moon is full, the new spiritual year begins. Some groups wait for the new moon to occur, but the new year’s celebration lasts six to nine days. Some activities last for 48 hours, creating a Watch Night vigil.
This New Year’s celebration is about dreams for the future and the release of fulfilled dreams of the past. It is also about the triumph of good over evil.
Both the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, BC and the six nations of the Iroquois in the American Midwest and East and Canadian East celebrate with huge masks of the animal founders of their tribal groups and clans. The male dancers who wear the outsized masks are often called Uncles or Big Heads. They announce the new year feast or potlatch and invite the community and guests to participate. On the west coast, this is done in a plank house or “Big House”, while in the east, it is done in the longhouse.
Some Celebration Rituals
The Uncles of the group perform the Stirring of the Ashes, stirring old cooking fires and lighting new fires in thanksgiving for what the Creator provided in the past year in hopes of more blessings in the new year.
A series of dances are performed during the celebration week, including a Feather Dance, Founders' Dance (see photos above), and sometimes a Bear Dance. The latter dance is an opportunity to ask for blessings and cure of sickness among the community; stories are told of past healing as well.
An interesting element of the festivities is a series of dream related activities that include dream guessing. Individuals may act out their dreams in pantomime as others guess their meanings. Sometimes, this activity leads to the community helping a member by giving them land or food. Looking at dreams in this way is considered a mental health tool to eliminate stress and psychological ills.
The Great Betting Game is often held during the week as well. In this activity, peach pits are painted black on one side and tossed in a bowl by players who hope they have the most unpainted sides showing to win a bet. Sometimes men play against the women and this is a rousing game that can last two days.
At the end of the six to nine days of bringing in the new year, a speaker summarizes the past year and hops for the new year. Often, a new tribal or clan council has been elected and are inducted into service.
The European Watch
A constant attention to the work which God entrusts us with is a mark of solid piety— John Wesley
Jan Hus and John Wesley
Attending Methodist church services while in college, I learned about the Anglican John Wesley’s version of Watch Night. It began with the Moravians, a small Christian group that first appeared in today’s Czech Republic. Their doctrine followed from Jan Hus of the Bohemian reformation, who was burned at the stake.
The first Moravian Watch Night service is recorded in 1733 on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf om Hernhut, Germany. Saxony was another hub of Moravian life.
Not much is known about this first service, but we know that today’s Moravians in America celebrate Christmas with a life size nativity scene that fills an entire barn; and that they keep a New Year’s Eve Vigil.
The Methodist vigil of the 1740s appears to have been staunch and demanding, nothing like a party. Parishioners prayed for the success of the upcoming years’ harvests, but were admonished by pastors to earn as much money as possible, only to give it to the poor. They were to confess sins, but today’s Christian congregations largely feel that this is a matter to be held between the individual and God; and possibly a pastor or lay minister. Watch Night also included other prayers and a selection of hymns.
By the 1760s, John Wesley was leading Watch Nights as a renewal of the New Covenant between humans and God through His son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The atmosphere likely became more joyous.
The Modern American Watch
After World War II, leaders in certain American cities began to plan for community activities on New Year's Eve. By the late 1980s, these community events were planned to provide a safer environment for families and children on the holiday night, away from drunk drivers, people shooting off guns at midnight, and other calamities.
By the mid-2010s, Watch Night has become the First Night Party in hundreds of cities all over the world, including different fun and safe activities and live entertainment.
In Columbus, Ohio the First Night celebration happens at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) with fireworks, light shows, entertainers, games, children's crafts, tours of the exhibits, movies, and other events.
Watch Night still occurs in Columbus and other cities, with religious services, after parties, and a strong emphasis on the traditional African American Watch Night in many communities.
Center of Science and Industry
© 2016 Patty Inglish