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Discovering the meaning behind my family’s New Year’s Day traditions

The history of Watch Night and the Emancipation Proclamation makes the holiday special

When I was growing up, my grandparents fled the gloom of the Pacific Northwest every Christmas for the sun and sandy beaches in Hawaii. While we rarely experienced opening presents or holding hands around the dinner table with them on Christmas Day, they always returned for Jan. 1. New Year’s Day, my grandparents never missed.

Of course, they made sure they arrived with enough time for my grandmother to prepare all of the food: Chicken and dumplings, North Carolina barbecue, collard greens, mac and cheese, chitlins and of course, black-eyed peas. All were on the table at the New Year’s Day gathering my grandparents hosted every year at their home in the small town of Steilacoom, Washington, southwest of Tacoma.

Celebrating on New Year’s Day is a tradition that has been passed down through generations in African American households. At 87, my maternal grandmother, Ella Turner, still spends days preparing our sacred meal, the same meal her grandmother prepared.

“When I was about 8 or 9 years old and too young to do very much, my grandmother, my father’s mother, used to let me help in the kitchen. That’s how I learned to cook. She’d let me peel potatoes or do small things in the kitchen with the adults, so as a result I learned to carry on a lot of the things that we did,” she told me. 

Mariah Lee’s maternal grandmother, Ella Turner, 87, at Lee’s mother’s house on Christmas Day.

Mariah Lee

I spoke to her, my oldest living relative, ahead of our celebration this year. “That has been going on as long as I can remember, the New Year’s Day dinner that we would have,” she said.  

Unlike with Christmas, she recalled as a child that her extended family would travel from far distances to her grandmother’s house in Wilson, North Carolina. There, they would spend the entire day eating and fellowshipping. “When I grew up it was like an all-day thing. It wasn’t like being together for two or three hours. It was just like an open day,” my grandmother recounted. Though she left Wilson after graduating from high school, my grandma continued on with her family’s practice wherever she set foot. 

When I asked about the origins of the celebration, she replied, “Well, this goes back to slavery … New Year’s Day dinner was what we did. And it was for tradition.”

Until last year, this was the extent of my understanding of the history of New Year’s Day celebrations: Black folks gathered on the first of the year because it was tradition.

Now, I know that reasoning is incomplete.

I recently talked to my only sibling, Marshall Lee, and my father, Robert Lee, about New Year’s Day, as each of us has had our own journey to discovering the history our foremothers were unable to pass down. I asked my older brother what New Year’s signals to him and he responded, “I guess three things come to mind: Grandma Turner, soul food [especially chitlins] and then also, for the longest time, not knowing why it was such a big deal.”

As kids, we knew celebrating on New Year’s Day was intrinsically Black. We knew the foods we ate were the same foods our ancestors ate during slavery. We knew taking unwanted, disregarded food items and turning them into something exquisite was symbolic of Black culture. What we didn’t know, however, was why our kin celebrated when our white friends’ families did not.

“My aha moment was this past year,” my brother said. He was listening to a podcast in the days leading up to Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865, Union troops freed African Americans in Galveston, Texas, who had been illegally enslaved for more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. “They talked about the history of [Juneteenth], which I was already familiar with, but then they also brought up the history of New Year’s. Both holidays are celebrations of emancipation, which I had no idea.”

Throughout slavery, Jan. 1 was Hiring Day. Human beings were auctioned, bought and leased annually on the first of the year. Commonly known as “Heartbreak Day,” husbands were sold from their wives, and mothers were torn from their children.

As kids, we knew celebrating on New Year’s Day was intrinsically Black. We knew the foods we ate were the same foods our ancestors ate during slavery. We knew taking unwanted, disregarded food items and turning them into something exquisite was symbolic of Black culture. What we didn’t know, however, was why our kin celebrated when our white friends’ families did not.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. The executive order granted freedom for enslaved people held in Confederate states, turning one of the most dreaded days of the year, a day that had been associated with the severing of families, into one of the most revered.

Learning that gatherings on New Year’s Day grew out of a celebration of freedom and being together profoundly changed the way my brother viewed the holiday. “I was like, oh, my God, this is huge! This is why it’s a big deal. This is why in Grandma’s mind it’s bigger than Christmas,” he said.

Incomplete explanations were a part of my dad’s experience, too. My 54-year-old father recounted the holiday of his youth. “We had traditional African American food, but no one really went into depth to explain why we ate what we ate. It was just there,” he told me.

“It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that Black people would say that you had to have collard greens on New Year’s Day because that would bring financial success – the greens represented money. And you had to have black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day because that brought you good luck. Those things came in later,” he said.

Black-eyed peas, traditionally included in the dish known as Hoppin’ John, are the signature feature of New Year’s Day dinner. The black-eyed pea originated in Central Africa before making its way to the Carolinas in the early 1700s. In West Africa, it was regarded as a symbol of luck.

Not only was my dad not taught the significance of New Year’s Day dishes, he was unaware of the tie the gathering had to Emancipation Day or the significance of the previous evening – Watch Night.

On Sept. 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued an ultimatum to the Confederate states. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declared that if the Confederacy did not surrender and rejoin the Union, slaves held in rebellious states would be free on Jan. 1, 1863.

For more than two months, enslaved folks waited to see if Lincoln would follow through on his threat. Many feared that at the last second the president would compromise with Southern states and not sign the document.

The night of Dec. 31, free and enslaved African Americans gathered in churches and homes across the country, waiting for Lincoln to act. Folks prayed, sang and counted down the time in what came to be known as Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve.

In South Carolina, Black folks traveled long distances to congregate in the hours leading up to midnight. Many Black families and individuals met at Camp Saxton in Port Royal, South Carolina, to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read, because rumor had it that if you weren’t there to hear it, you might not have been freed.

“I probably didn’t have a full appreciation for Watch Night until my 40s,” my father told me. “History class never taught us about the particulars of how Black people were freed and we pretty much grew up thinking that the day that Lincoln delivered his address, the Emancipation Proclamation, Black people just walked off the plantation and were assembled into society. We didn’t know anything about Juneteenth or any other day.”

The story of emancipation of my ancestors is complicated. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in Confederate states that were currently rebelling and not already under Union control. Therefore, enslaved people in the border states and in areas held by the North were not freed by Lincoln’s decree.

Even in places where the order did apply, its enforcement wasn’t guaranteed. Slaveholders often pretended that the law didn’t exist and continued enslaving people, as was the case in Galveston. The abolishment of chattel slavery in the United States didn’t come until 1865, more than two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, when the 13th Amendment was ratified into law.

That history doesn’t come in a neat package. When it’s not taught in a classroom or handed down by elders, Black folks are faced with piecing together the history of their ancestors. Despite majoring in history in college, I was only able to assemble a complete picture of New Year’s Day after my dad and brother relayed their revelations to me, years after my studies. 

My dad described how this process of discovery is ongoing, and that he continues to put together stories he wasn’t formally taught – stories that came between the lines.

His appreciation for Watch Night only occurred a few years ago, after he remarried and joined a new church. “It wasn’t until I became a member of New Hope that I recognized the significance of Watch Night,” he said. Along with a number of African American churches, Seattle’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church hosts a Watch Night service annually on New Year’s Eve.

“It’s not my exclusive way of celebrating New Year’s. I still long to go somewhere where there is a big party and you’re dropping the ball and all that. But I can no longer be ignorant of the significance to our people,” he said. 

New Year’s Day has always held meaning – watching my grandmother spend days cleaning chitlins, seeing my grandfather risk his high blood pressure to eat heavily salted North Carolina-style pork, and witnessing every family member participate in our ritual of sharing what we seek to accomplish in the upcoming year. With the addition of historical knowledge, our tradition became even more treasured.

My brother confessed, “I guess for a while New Year’s did kind of seem like an obligation. Like, ugh, I can’t get too drunk on New Year’s Eve because I have to be at Grandma’s tomorrow. But now, it’s like this emotional meaning that’s just deeper than family. It’s history.”

Mariah Lee is a professional athlete and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.S. from the Wake Forest School of Business. Follow her on Instagram @merdashewrote.