Gullah Geechee NEW YEAR’S Tradition: “From Whence We Came” | Watch Night + Emancipation Day Celebration


This New Year’s Eve, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission invites you to come together with members of Gullah Geechee communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to participate in a celebration that is over 150 years old: the Watch Night service commemorating the date of January 1, 1863 when enslaved people in the Low Country, the Sea Islands and throughout the United States emerged from bondage as a result of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Though Watch Night has continued to be observed in one form or another in the Corridor, it would appear that its original tie to the Emancipation Proclamation has been largely lost.


These community events will take place Sunday, December 31, 2017 and/or Monday, January 1, 2018 at churches, community centers and sites such as old rice plantations. The Watch Night services will generally begin late in the evening on December 31, 2017. What you will experience in the hours leading up to midnight will vary based on custom and practice in each Gullah Geechee community but tradition holds that these services usually involve music, the traditional liturgy and contemplation of what has passed followed by reconciliation and resolutions for the coming year.

The Watchmen, elders in the community, will signal when midnight is near. At that time, the community will kneel in prayer to welcome the New Year – and collectively reflect on how on January 1, 1863 the New Year also meant a long-hoped for freedom for millions of African-Americans in the United States. Gullah Geechee people, who have been a part of or have long memories of these traditional celebrations within their communities over the years, will educate others about the traditions, history and significance of what occurred on these days.


You can find a growing list of participating sites on our website. We ask that you be mindful that these are important community events that involve long-standing, sacred ceremonies. We ask that you respect the churches and our community partners by being mindful of local customs regarding attire and conduct.

You should also seek permission at least a week in advance from the site if you would like to photograph or videotape any part of these events.

QUESTIONS? Contact the Commission at or 843.818.4587.


Development of this program was supported by a generous planning grant from South Carolina Humanities.


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