A watchnight service (also called Watchnight Mass) is a late-night Christian church service. In many different Christian traditions, such as those of Moravians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Adventists and Reformed Christians, watchnight services are held late on New Year's Eve, which is the seventh day of Christmastide. This provides the opportunity for Christians to review the year that has passed and make confession, and then prepare for the year ahead by praying and resolving. The services often include singing, praying, exhorting, preaching, and Holy Communion.
Watchnight services can take the form of Watchnight Covenant Renewal Services, Watchnight Vespers services, Watchnight Vigil services, or Watchnight Masses. As Watchnight services bring in the New Year by glorifying God, they are seen by many Christians as being preferable to "drunken revelry" in popular cultural celebrations commonplace in some localities.
In Christianity, since the time of the early Church, Christians have held vigils (watchnights) before the celebration of feast days, a practice "inspired by Jesus's example of praying all night before important decisions." At that time, non-Christians of the Greco-Roman world observed the arrival of the New Year with "revelling" and Christians distinguished themselves by instead praying and fasting.
Throughout history, Christian denominations including the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church and Anglican Church have variously observed the eighth day of Christmastide--New Year's Day--as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Feast of the Holy Name and Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, with the evening before having the Vigil Mass (Watchnight Mass) for the feast.
The Moravian Church came to hold a lovefeast on New Year's Eve, followed by a watchnight service in the evening. These watchnight services last three hours and have been held since they became popular in the Czech Republic in 1733.
After attending a Moravian watchnight service on New Year's Eve in 1738, John Wesley, the father of the Methodist Churches, recorded that "as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground." The Methodist Churches, strongly influenced by the Moravian Church and Radical Pietism in general, herald the practice of the Watchnight Service, with John Wesley having emphasized that it was "customary with the ancient Christians to spend whole nights in prayer".
In the Moravian Church, congregations observe a watchnight service on New Year's Eve, which is preceded by the celebration of the lovefeast. The three-hour watchnight service of Moravian Christians traces back to at least 1733.
Following the lead of the Moravian Brethren who began having "watch" services in 1733, the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, originated watch night services in 1740, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal Services. The services provided Methodist Christians with a godly alternative to times of drunken revelry, including New Year's Eve. Today, a Methodist watchnight service includes singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, as well as scripture readings and Holy Communion; the liturgy for this service, which is held on New Year's Eve, is found in Methodist liturgical books, such as The United Methodist Book of Worship.
In Roman Catholic churches, Mass is held on New Year's Eve/New Year's Day around midnight; these are called the "Watch Night Mass" or "Watchnight Mass". The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nassau has watchnight services at parishes throughout the ecclesiastical territory.
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America contains a liturgy for the Watchnight Service in The Book of Occasional Services.  In The Living Church, Fr. William M. Lawbaugh stated that "Watchnight Services on New Year's Eve have a lot to offer the Episcopal Church, not only to dispel the ugly notions of alcohol abuse but also to reform ourselves." The Anglican watchnight service includes "lessons, psalms, and collects" as well as Holy Communion.
In the Presbyterian Churches, watchnight services are held on New Year's Eve (Hogmanay); they often include the singing of hymns and the sharing of testimonies by congregants, such as how God has blessed them that year. St Cuthbert's Church, Edinburgh, a parish of the Church of Scotland, is known for its New Year's Eve watchnight service. In the Church of Scotland, a Watchnight service also refers to a popular ceremony marking the beginning of Christmas Day.
In Adventist churches, watchnight services are celebrated on New Year's Eve with "testimonies, praise songs, [and] psalms" in order to "give God thanks for keeping us through a trying year and asking his guidance as we anticipate the new year and Him leading us in that period".
Watchnight service has additional significance and history in the Black churches in the United States, since many African Americans were said to have gathered in churches on New Year's Eve, in 1862, to await the hour when the president Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was to take effect on January 1, 1863. As such, watchnight services in the Black Church are widely attended.
Korean Christians have a strong tradition of watchnight services on New Year's Eve.
The Watch Night service is today most often held on New Year's Eve, sometimes concluding at midnight, or on New Year's Day.
At A WATCH-NIGHT SERVICE: Methodism has one special institution. Its lovefeasts are old-old as Apostolic times. Its class meetings are the confessional in its simplest and most unobjectionable type, but in the institution of the watch-night it boldly struck out a new path for itself. In publicly setting apart the last fleeting moments of the old year and the first of the new to penitence, and special prayer, and stirring appeal, and fresh resolve, it has set an example which other sects are preparing to follow.
In 1740, Wesley started watch-night services for the coal miners of the Kingswood area, offering this nocturnal worship as a godly alternative to spending their evenings in ale-houses. The watch-night services consisted of singing, praying, exhorting, and preaching for a number of hours. Wesley meant to establish it as a monthly practice, always at full moon to keep the meeting well lit. In America, this service often supplanted times of traditional drunken revelry, like New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve.
Watch Night took on even more significance during the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to take effect Jan. 1, 1863. Free and enslaved people gathered the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.
Early in church history, Christians held vigils during the evenings before church festivals. These vigils, or watch night services, seem to have been inspired by Jesus's example of praying all night before important decisions.
Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services. The original services were spontaneous prayer services designed to deepen the spiritual life of Methodists.
The service is loosely constructed with singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, and readings, including the Covenant Renewal service from The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 288-294).
On New Year's Eve our atmospheric Watchnight Service takes place at 11.15pm. The short carol service is followed by a candlelit procession to the Market Square where Bishop Helen-Ann will give a blessing just before midnight and the New Year is brought in with fireworks.
New Years' Eve (Watchnight): live Service at 11.30pm on Zoom