Are Early ‘Midnight Masses’ Desacralizing Dec. 25?

So asks Fr. James Martin, SJ, at America. “What had piqued my curiosity was a comment from a friend last Christmas.  ‘Boy,’ she said, ‘I’m so glad I can go to Mass the day before and get it over with’”  That sentiment had me a little concerned.  Is Dec. 24 the day to “get it over with?”

42 comments

  1. Well, I am of the opinion that the Masses of Christmas should culminate with the Mass for Christmas Day, though I am also fond of the Mass at Dawn (well, that’s what I grew up going to – where I grew up, young children were not permitted to attend Midnight Mass).

    But, more importantly, I think it might help to reveal that the circumstances that once made the Midnight Mass so popular are no longer extant. Namely, the fast that long obtained on Christmas Eve, and the Tridentine rules requiring a Eucharistic fast after midnight and also against celebrating Mass after noon. Thus, Midnight Mass allowed people to break the two fasts quickly. This is a great example of how the precept-oriented culture of the juridical side of the Church fed popular culture. In any event, those days are gone with the wind.

    Right now, part of the problem on Christmas Day is that many parishes skimp on the liturgies, and it becomes a self-reinforcing problem. Resources need to be rejiggered to avoid stiffing the Day for the Eve.

  2. Some of it involves modern holiday culture: the complexities of grandparents hosting holiday festivities. In the olden days, one wouldn’t celebrate Christmas on the Eve at the paternal grandparents’ home and the day at the maternal grandparents’. I know a number of people–even in their forties–who do not “host” a family Christmas. Especially if there are parents or in-laws in town. When my wife and I got married, and especially after we adopted, we were determined to have a family Christmas. We were, perhaps, fortunate that our relations live hundreds of miles away and I work till noon on Christmas Day.

    Early Christmas Eve Masses are beholden to this phenomenon. I think it’s less a matter of people wanting to get liturgy out of the way, and more of balancing liturgy as one of three or more good things going on for them.

    To deal with the “problem” of 1400 worshipers showing up for two 3:30 PM Christmas Eve Masses at a parish whose church and school auditorium together hold 1100 comfortably, I once half-seriously suggested to the pastor we not advertise we’re having 3:30 Mass. Nothing in the bulletin. Nothing on the web site. Celebrate the Mass, certainly, and expect hundreds to flock to it. Just don’t tell anybody we’re doing it unless they ask.

    I got a blank stare.

    Maybe that’s a consideration, though. Just advertise Mass at Midnight and Christmas Day, and let people figure it out from there.

    If the US bishops were doing their jobs, they would be able to assess the current situation and make necessary changes and suggestions for adaptation to maximize the spiritual benefit for the ones who come for Christmas worship. That, I think, trumps any centuries-old Roman dispute about what gets celebrated when and with what readings. Let monasteries keep the Vigil/Midnight/Dawn/Day tradition. Let parishes do what makes sense, especially if we can encourage a trickle to come back for Holy Family Sunday.

  3. Well age is a big factor, and we are getting older as a society.

    Long gone are my high school days when I was in charge of the servers, was there for both the midnight Mass and main Mass of the Day, and got up to serve the 7am Low Mass at Dawn.

    Each year tentative plans for midnight Mass are cancelled because of the weather. My values of what constitutes “bad” weather have significantly changed since retirement. A lot of driving once considered normal is now regarded as foolish.

    Having usually opted for a Mass in the 7-9 pm range, this year I am thinking of heading to the local Orthodox Church on Christmas Eve around the same time. I think they do the Divine Office but without the Liturgy of Saint Basil appointed for Christmas Eve. Then a late Christmas morning Mass in the Roman Rite.

    An early Vigil Mass as an elderly option is not just for Christmas. A lot of elderly people I know like 4pm Saturday Masses because it is still light and they do not have the problems associated with getting up in the morning. Maybe we should consider late afternoon Sunday Masses? Wonder if late afternoon Christmas day Masses would work?. Certainly would this year if we allowed them to count for Sunday obligation, too!

  4. Wonder if late afternoon Christmas day Masses would work?.

    As a Jesuit I saw last Sunday said, “Good luck finding one.”

  5. Our early Mass on Christmas Eve is at 3PM with prelude carol-singing at 2:30PM. Is it possible to be earlier? Needless to say it is packed to standing room only! A lot of grandparents and small children. Then comes the 5PM and 7 PM [Hispanic], and yes– a Midnight Mass that really has an opening Hymn at Midnight [though the prelude music starts at 11:30 PM]. Two Masses on Christmas Day 9:15 & 11:15 AM complete the celebration. [No Sat 5:15 PM Mass Dec 25; the HolyFamily has to be content with the regular 4 Sunday Masses.]

  6. Mass on Christmas day makes my Christmas. It seems empty otherwise, or so overburdened with the “other good things” Todd mentions that the core of the event, the wellspring of the feast itself, gets blurred.

    Alas, I think we have to face the fact that there are many people who are attached to Christmas but not attracted to Christian faith much less Church observance. They are increasingly the majority in Catholic families, and for the sake of family cohesion the “church thing” no longer gets top billing.

    So if evangelization doesn’t happen, your “cultural” Christmas that includes church at all will have it as something to be gotten out of the way so that the “real” celebration can begin. Megachurches give out CDs to play at home in lieu of churchgoing on Christmas! At least Catholic Mass can’t be “gotten out of the way” quite so easily… But is the time coming…?

  7. One immense practical benefit of Christmas morning Mass for children is that it forces children to part from their loot (at least those children who get their loot that morning) soon after getting it.

  8. Our Christmas TLM is an early afternoon Mass (as it is on Sundays) and usually is the biggest draw of the year. Apparently Christmas, with so many family activities taking precedence during the morning, is the one day when an afternoon Mass is convenient for the most.

  9. It would be interesting to learn a history of the “midnight Mass”, perhaps it would show it always had some of the “get it out of the way” mentality and also a cultural adaptation (especially the old fasting and liturgical laws).

    in the tradition, midnight mass was only one third of the feast, the three Masses of Christmas were a whole and expressed a complete theology of his coming in the flesh and WHO it was that came to us. and the more important of the three would have been the day mass.

    times have changed and culture is very different, and maybe we are being challenged to find how to express and celebrate this coming as it is happening today in our culture? for better or worse many people start celebrating Christmas early on the eve…..so is it not beautiful to see so many people “put God first” and go to the vigil mass?

    perhaps we can look at the Christmas season with new eyes? we enter the celebration on the eve, celebrate it in our “domestic church” and maybe celebrate the main liturgical feast on Epiphany and culminate it on the feast of the Baptism? of course it would be nice to go back to a different time, or live in a monastic environment, where we could celebrate a more traditional Christmas,but the real problem maybe we are lacking creativity and openness to find and celebrate Christ who comes to us now in this time and place? Christ, son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, among us and in us now our hope of glory to come! come let us worship and celebrate him in this crazy and very secular world!

  10. We attended the 3pm Christmas Eve Mass for years because our kids were in the Christmas play that takes the place of the Gospel. As the kids got older, we switched to the 5pm because they have a Christmas play for older children.

    My daughter is 10 this year and this will be the last year she can participate in the Christmas play (she’ll be the Star of Bethlehem). Next year, we’ll be moving to the Midnight Mass, which was a long-standing tradition for my family growing up.

    My favorite Midnight Mass memory is the time my mother had a little too much eggnog and was belting out O Come All Ye Faithful in the original Latin. My sister kept tugging on her sleeve saying “Mom! Mom! You are EMBARASSING ME!”

    1. Thanks, Mr. Nixon…wonderful stories. We have had some of the same experiences along with “grandparents” having a little too much before the mass…..but, that just gives the kids more stories.

  11. A reading of Alphonse Daudet’s; “Trois Messes Basses” (Three low Masses) would put this whole problem/difficulty in a better context. In fact just because the three Masses were in the Papal liturgy in the Hadrianum and copied out by Alcuin and friends, there is no real reason that people who do not celebrate with the Papal liturgy in Rome itself should follow the same custom.

  12. “Is Dec. 24 the day to ‘get it over with?'”

    It is, for now. Someday, however, Dec. 24 will be called something else: Christmas.

  13. Many of the Protestant and Evangelical churches around here have stopped offering a Christmas Day service. It started with the mega-churches and has quickly spread to neighborhood congregations. The Baptist church I drive past each morning will offer 3 services on Christmas eve–and the doors will be locked tight on Christmas day.

  14. What is the earliest a Mass may be celebrated as a vigil Mass earlier than which it becomes a Christmas Eve Mass not fulfilling the obligation to attend on Christmas Day?
    I ask as I had assumed the post was aimed at Masses at around 7pm or 8pm on Christmas Eve. In Ireland the simple reason for “midnight Masses” at that time was a reaction against all the trouble with drunks coming in at midnight from the pubs which closed at 11.30pm.
    But 3.30pm on Christmas Eve? You’ve got to be kidding me…

    1. Cecile De, In 19th century New York it wasn’t uncommon for the Irish immigrants, and others, to refer to the Sunday 12 noon Mass, as “the drunkard’s Mass”. Amongst older New Yorkers you still hear it called by that name today.

      I think the midnight Mass was the result of shortening the ancient vigil office from an all night event to one ending at midnight. With the “Midnight Mass” following. The Mass of the Shepherds, at dawn, appears to have been the oldest of the three and the original “Vigil Mass”.

  15. I wonder if some of the comments about christmas celebrations starting on 24th december lack consideration of inculuration? Many european countries eg france, germany and scandanavia have their family christmas meal on christmas eve. Perhaps then christmas vigil masses are quite propwe within this context. I come from england and i’ve never hear of xmas vigil masses being in the early afternoon. Is this an american trend? In my london parish, we have the usual 6.30pm mass (for families and elderly), plus midnight mass (sung lation/english) and the usual 3 masses on xmas day. I think any vigil mass should nt be celebrated before dusk so afternoon masses are inappropriate (even if allowed).

    I also wonder if the new missal translation has neglected an oppotunity for reforming the rubrics to more accurately reflect actual practice. Would it not be more appropriate for there to be a tridium consisting of a vigil mass, midnight mass and morning mass with readings/prayers to reflect the ties these are celebrated? This suggestion would allow the crating of appropriate prayers/readings reflecting the anticipatory nature of these masses. There seems little need for 2 seperate texts for xmas morning these days.

    I wold also like the gospel readings to be combined so that the full nativity story is read at each of these masses. I suspect that splitting the gospel passages relected monastic communities who probably attended more than one mass It’s quite disappointing for families only attending christmas day morning mass not to hear the nativity story especially if there are children present.

    In many parishes in these parts (partly because of priest shortages) there is only one mass scheduled for sun 26th – also reflecting that many families will only attend mass once over christmas weekend this year.

  16. The custom with the high- to broad-church Anglicans in Montreal is a 10pm “Midnight Mass (or Eucharist)”. I don’t know what the Roman custom is given the sparsity of anglophone RC churches, but I suspect that there also the tendency is for an earlier celebration.

    When I am at the family home in the States I go to a Roman Midnight Mass that starts just before 12:00 am. I usually take a Christmas Eve nap with the intention to make breakfast the next day while everyone else is at church.

  17. Looking into the history of December 24th liturgy, it seems that we are actually being very traditional in our recent developments!

    Gueranger notes the special character of this day, namely that it was celebrated as a double Feast beginning with Lauds (e.g.Sunday festal rather than the weekday psalms of other vigils). The fast ended at the midday meal. So my practice of beginning Christmas celebrations at 10 am EST with the BBC Festival of Lesson and Carols is similar to the EF practice of making the transition from Advent to Christmas on the morning of Dec 24th

    The Liber Usualis notes that the Mass for the 24th should be celebrated after None (3pm) unless it is a Sunday when it would be after Terce (9am). So all who are celebrating Mass at 3pm and 4pm are on time according the letter of the EF!!! Of course right before Vatican II people did not celebrate Mass at 3pm, they celebrated None in the morning!

    According to Adams book on the Liturgical Year, the original Christmas Mass at Rome was in St Peters on Christmas morning. When Saint Mary’s was built in Rome with the crib; they brought over the Jerusalem custom of celebrating Epiphany with a Mass in Bethlehem the night before, and then Mass the next day in Jerusalem. (Remember Christmas originated in Rome; Epiphany in the East). The Dawn Mass originated in the Sixth century in the imperial church of Saint Anastasia, an Eastern martyr (the Greeks ruled Rome at that time).

    Seems the readings service at Saint Mary Major began at dusk like our Easter Vigil and Mass followed immediately. Remember there were no modern clocks for people to wonder about when Midnight Mass would be!

    So you might claim to be traditional by using the Mass of the Vigil for masses celebrated between 3pm and twilight; and using the Midnight Mass for between twilight and first light, then the Mass of dawn for early morning and the Mass during the day for late morning.

  18. Sorry fellows, but clearly you haven’t dealt with children on Christmas Day. They’re up at dawn, excited and full of sugar. Trust me, it’s far better to begin the celebration with Mass on Christmas Eve.

    Do you really think the Man who partied with tax collectors and prostitutes would object to families assembling to celebrate His Birth? Not everything holy and sacred is to be found within the confines of a church.

    1. Um, people dealt with children on Christmas morn for myriad generations. Somehow, my parents with 6 children (including a special needs child) managed to get all of us to Mass on Christmas morning. It was quite sane. It’s a matter of expectations and training.

      1. Every family has its own dynamics. Still, for many
        (most?) families with young children, trying to cram all the events including Mass into Christmas Day results in a mother who is frazzled, exhausted and cranky. Far better to stretch out the celebration over two or more days.

        On edit: looking over the comments again, I think we are all approaching this from our own backgrounds. Growing up in a family of nurses and steel workers, someone was always working Christmas Day. As a result, we didn’t celebrate Christmas Day so much as we celebrated the entire Christmas Season.

      2. Or, expect less of mom and oneself. This can be an opportunity o use the cramming to pare away at unrealistic and unsuitable expectations. FOr example, pulling the kids away from their loot because they have to go to Mass is a powerful educator about priorities. (It was also the time when Dad took (most of) the kids, leaving Mom an hour of rest and quiet. perfect solution. Mom then went to Mass when the kids got home; often with the eldest daughter.)

  19. Is what happened to the Easter Vigil being celebrated in the early morning hours of Holy Saturday, not to mention what happened to Holy Thursday’s Mass and the Good Friday service, now happening to Christmas? Will we have to wait 500 years before a reform that celebrates Christmas on Christmas be our lot in the same way that so many waited for a reform of the times of the Triduum in the 1950’s?

    1. The saddest Easter I ever had came the year that the new pastor began the Holy Thursday Mass with an off-stage
      solo featuring the phrase “These are holy hands, I have holy hands”. Our choir had practiced the Pange Lingua in both English and Latin, but he handed out new lyrics just before Mass. Those lyrics, c. 1903, could be sung to the Pange Lingua tune, but were an entirely different hymn. Good Friday is a blur, but he began the Easter Vigil at 4:30 (the same as every Saturday) and proudly finished exactly 67 minutes later. Need I mention he added the special elements such as the blessing of the paschal candle at random spots through the Mass? And of course,there was no time for renewal of Baptism vows! We walked out blinking in the late afternoon sun. It felt like Easter hadn’t happened at all!
      Easter Vigil can be exhausting (my kids remember stretching out and napping in the pews when they were little), but it can be a good exhaustion, like running a marathon.

    2. Good points Fr. Pedersen, on top of that our bishop and I presume most bishops set a time for the Easter Vigil, that is must be after sun down, so no earlier, than let’s say 8:30 PM. Why can’t we do that for all vigils, including Christmas. That might solve many problems and take the heat off of pastors doing it without canonical support. Of course winter sun down is early, so maybe we need to just say no vigils before 8:00 PM?

  20. If anyone is in a rush “to get it over with”, what about the decision to celebrate the Epiphany on January 2 this year? Compressing the entire Christmas season to two week-ends?
    Bah, humbug!

  21. The Byzantine “Little Hours” for Dec 24 (not Dec 25) become the Royal Hours. Psalmody is combined with a Liturgy of the Word for each hour! Full text here.
    http://www.anastasis.org.uk/24decRH.htm

    Below an outline; Greek Psalm numbering.

    FIRST HOUR
    Ps 5 In the morning you will hear my voice.
    Ps 44 My heart has uttered a good Word. I tell my works to the King
    Ps 45 Come and see the works of God
    Micheas.[5:1-3] : And you Bethlehem, house of Ephratha, are not least
    Hebrews.[1:1-12] In many and varied ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets
    Matthew.[1:18-25]Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.

    THIRD HOUR
    Ps 66 Let peoples confess you, O God, let all peoples confess you
    Ps 86 His foundations are in the holy mountains
    Ps 50 Have mercy on me O God, in your great mercy
    Baruch 3:36-38. 4:1-4]This is our God, and there shall be none other
    Galatians [3:23-29] as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ
    Luke.[2:1-20]In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus

    SIXTH HOUR
    Ps 71 O God give your judgement to the King, and your justice to the son of the King.
    Ps 131 O Lord remember David and all his meekness; how he swore to the Lord
    Ps 90 One who dwells in the help of the Most High
    Isaias.[7:10-16 & 8:1-4, 8-10] Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God;
    Hebrews.[1:10-14 & 2:1-3] But to what angel has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand,
    Matthew.[2:1-12]When Jesus was born.. Magi from the East

    NINTH HOUR
    Ps 109 The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand,
    Ps 110 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart
    Ps 85 Incline your ear, O Lord, … for I am poor and needy
    Isaias.[9:16-7]A child has been born for us
    Hebrews.[2:11-18] he had to become like his brethren in every respect,
    Matthew.[2:13-23]Now when the Magi had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared.

    Hmm. The Emperor’s parties on the 25th???

  22. This is simply consistent with Catholic Mass attendance in general. As was said many years ago by a prominent Catholic commentator “We have become a vigil-people”, referring to the dominance of anticipated Masses at most parishes.

    I did everything possible to stop our long standing tradition of Midnight Mass from being changed to a 10:00PM Mass. I was unsuccessful however, and so yet another part of the unique Catholic experience has been lost. However, an “upside” is that this schedule allows me to sing in the schola for the EF Midnight Mass at the nearby FSSP Parish, so perhaps this is just an example of that “mutual enrichment” happening. 🙂

  23. I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Mass at dawn. Is it EVER celebrated anywhere anymore except in religious orders? If I remember correctly the readings have a Lake Woebegon MN feel. This is important, ja, but let’s not get carried away in the wrong direction. (Cf. Daudet.) Many important things are that way. The everyday, routine is full of mystery when we stop to ponder it. The small, low key, intimate celebration can be just as satisfying as the big, stressful fuss.

    There is a kind of romanticism in putting Midnight Mass precisely at midnight; some folk traditions say Jesus was born then. (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen … wohl zu der halben Nacht.) If having “Midnight” Mass at 10PM deflates some of this romanticism, maybe it’s not such a bad move. Plus, there are places and times during Christmas day when an assembly will not have resources for the “really big shew;” they should be able to celebrate the mystery, too.

  24. In the 1955 revisions of the Easter Vigil, the gloria of the Mass was to take place precisely at midnight. That’s the midnight orientation I wish we’d kept because it is consonant with the themes of darkness-to-light, coming-of-the-new-day of resurrection that properly belong to the Easter Vigil.

    Christmas midnight Mass, on the other hand, is a Mass during the night. The idea of applying this strictly, while the Easter Vigil can be at any time, strikes me as the wrong priority.

    1. And that precision was possible because the Gloria began the Mass proper, which was preceded by a related but distinct Vigil. Now the two have been combined, not necessarily as well as they might have been.

      Anyway, the precision about the timing of the Mass during the Night was informed by the former issues of the Eucharistic fast and the Tridentine ban on masses occurring after noon. Those no longer obtain, and obviously the cultural artifacts that surrounded it are ebbing fast.

      That said, the “vigil creep” on Christmas Eve has unseemly echoes of the unreformed Easter Vigil and has nothing to commend it objectively speaking.

      1. Karl, don’t you think one could still consider the gloria of Easter in the reformed liturgy as a marker? Am not sure you have to have a bifurcated liturgy in order to place a “moment” at midnight. Of course, I am also in favor of returning baptisms to their earlier place before the gloria… Then one has the New Testament readings as mystagogy on baptism, and so on. But I am getting off the point now.

        Your other points about legislation and the fast (that you made above as well?) are true and fair. Absent a stronger theological justification, pastoral circumstances will hold sway.

  25. of course the Pope is celebrating the Midnight mass at 10pm again this year, so what exactly is all this fuss about?

  26. Consider this possibility: No Vigil Masses scheduled until two hours after the local shopping malls have closed – the real “sunset” in today’s culture. I remember with horror the story of one parish that, in a year when Christmas fell on a Monday, celebrated the first Mass of Christmas downstairs in the parish hall while the last Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Advent was being celebrated upstairs in the church. There was a slight lag in the timing that could allow people to move from one celebration to the next, all on their way to the local mall to finish their shopping.

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