For some black churches, the services hold special significance.
In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the document did not end slavery in America, it declared “that all persons held as slaves” in the states which had seceded from the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Late on Dec. 31, 1862, slaves and white abolitionists gathered in anticipation of the day Lincoln’s order would take effect – Jan. 1, 1863.
The vigils held on that first “Freedom’s Eve” were part of an even earlier church tradition, dating to the mid-18th century.
John Wesley, whose teachings established Methodism, encouraged reaffirmations of faith in “covenant renewal” services on New Year’s Eve.
Nearly 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, churches continue the tradition with services including special speakers and music, often followed by a late-night breakfast.