New Year’s Eve is often called “Watch Night,” a traditional service for many African-American churches...the most accepted "origin" of this tradition is linked to Dec. 31, 1862, as African-American families and churches celebrated "Freedom's Eve" and waited for word that Abraham Lincoln’s "so-called" Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
But, the tradition of plantation slave gatherings on New Year’s Eve predates the Emancipation Proclamation. Friends and family would gather (possibly for the last time) on New Year's Eve because New Year’s Day (early January) for many slaves in the South was known as “Heartbreak Day” or "Hiring Day"...a day when slaveholders sold slaves and other property in order to "balance their financial affairs" or to make money through the "hiring out" of excess slaves.
|Big Times..."Winter Holidays in the Southern States"|
In 1937, former slave Kisey McKimm and Beauregard Tenneyson described "Heartbreak Day"...
“The great day on the plantation, was Christmas, when we all got a little present from the Master...them kind of good times makes me think of Christmas. Didn’t have no Christmas tree, but they set up a long pine table in the house and that plank table was covered with presents and none of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day..Allow me to elaborate briefly on what Christmas meant for the African-American slave population in the South of America. Christmas could mean joy but often the air was filled concurrently by the fragrances of delicacies on the table and of the fear what the New Year would bring. Christmas was sometimes called “The Big Times”, but it ended for many of them with a “Heartbreak Day”.
“Hiring-day at the south takes place on the 1st of January. On the 2d, the slaves are expected to go to their new masters...on New Year’s eve they gather together their little alls, or more properly speaking, their little nothings, and wait anxiously for the dawning of day. At the appointed hour the grounds are thronged with men, women, and children, waiting, like criminals, to hear their doom pronounced...(The best master) is surrounded by a crowd, begging, “Please, massa, hire me this year. I will work very hard, massa.” If a slave is unwilling to go with his new master, he is whipped, or locked up in jail, until he consents to go, and promises not to run away during the year.”
"Were it not that hiring is near at hand, and many families are fearfully looking forward to the probability of separation in a few days, Christmas might be a happy season for the poor slaves... “Big Times” and a “Heartbreak Day” were separated by just a few days."
A former slave recalled how each New Year’s Day...
“the cries and tears of brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands were heard in the streets” as black families were separated – at least for twelve months, but possibly forever."
I wish you a Happy New Year!
Tonight remember...your family and friends...those who are serving our country...the homeless and oppressed...
Let us celebrate our freedom and resolve to kill more jellyfish in 2014.