What Time is Midnight Mass?

That old joke doesn’t work anymore, for it’s now a legitimate question what time the Mass is celebrated in Christmas night. And it’s mostly not at midnight anymore, but earlier.

To be a bit technical, there never was anything called “Midnight Mass” in the Latin liturgical books. The four Masses of Christmas are now given as:

  • in vigilia (vigil),
  • in nocte (“in the night”),
  • in aurora (“at dawn”), and
  • in die (“of the day”).

Since the old rules didn’t allow the Mass in the night to be celebrated before the clock said it was Christmas day, and apparently there was this laudable desire to celebrate Eucharist as early as possible on the great feast day, “Midnight Mass” in common parlance was born.

And since the old rules began the Communion fast from food and drink at midnight… you can guess where this is going. In effect, no fasting was required before Midnight Mass, and one could eat and drink (and drink and drink) right up until Mass time. I’ve been told by older priests on the East Coast that there were “incidents” at times in the old days because of drunken worshipers at Midnight Mass.

Some tough old pastors announced that Communion would be given to no one at Midnight Mass, but immediately following it there would be a quick, read “Low Mass” with distribution of Communion. This was the “Mass of the Shepherds,” named for the Gospel reading of the third Mass. (In the terminology of the preconciliar missals, this was the second Mass of Christmas Day.) The sober ones would be able to hold out for this Mass.

“It’s a hell of a church,” as someone I know used to say.

Now, “Midnight Mass” is for the most part just one more piece of Catholic lore that has bitten the dust. The holdouts are getting to be few and far between.

St. John’s Abbey fell a few years ago – in part but not only because the boys in the boy choir sing better when it isn’t the middle of the night. Mass is at 10pm now. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the monastic community, particularly older monks, welcomed the change, but younger monks were quite disappointed. But when Pope Benedict moved the Mass up to 10pm in St. Peter’s Basilica, resistance became hopelessly futile.

The Tablet out of London says that Midnight Mass is falling victim to “drunken yobbos [is that what they call them over there??] and a drastic shortage of priests.” One priest estimated that fewer than 25% of parishes offer Mass at midnight. But the line that some Masses are as early as 5pm suggests that perhaps not everyone at The Tablet gets the difference between the first and the second Mass of Christmas.

25% seemed like a high estimate compared to things around here. I did a quick online search of about a dozen and a half Catholic parishes and monasteries in St. Cloud, Minnesota and westward down the interstate. Of the 20 Masses on December 24, the most popular time is 5pm (5 Masses). Then follows 4pm (4), 8pm (4), and 10pm (4), and 9pm (3). Nothing at midnight. One can only guess which of these are the vigil Mass and which are the Mass in the Night.

I regret the loss of Midnight Mass, truth be told. But Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, and also Noon Prayer and festive meal with the monks, sure works a lot better when one is well-rested and not tired and crabby. Thanks be to God for that, I guess.

awr

 

 

45 comments

  1. My current parish offers a 10 PM “Midnight Mass.” As the DoM/ organist, it is a welcome change from my previous parish which had a 12 AM Midnight mass. I can technically be in bed between 12-1 AM, wait for Santa, and unwrap gifts with my family being better-rested (then the plunge of Christmas Day, but that’s another story…)

  2. My parish is rather large and with the C&E Catholics has to go all out with Masses in both the Church (capacity 1500) and annex (seating 350). Our Christmas schedule is thus:
    Christmas Eve: 7:30pm (Children’s Mass)
    Christmas Midnight Mass: 12:00* / 12:15
    Christmas Day Masses: 6:00, 8:00/8:15, 10:00*/10:15, 12:00/<12:15, 2:30/2:30 (if needed), 5:00

    *Full choir, tho the 10:00 is usually shy a few!

  3. We still go with Lessons and Carols at 11:30 followed by Mass. I noticed on the web my former parish has reduced from 3:30 (in 2 locations)-6-8-12 and three Masses on Christmas morning to 2-4-6-10 and one the next day. I still remember getting home from Midnight Mass, wrapping presents and placing under the tree till 4am (my wife thought I wouldn’t want to miss that) and getting up a short time later to open the church doors at 7am. Sure am glad those days are over.

    2pm Christmas Eve makes me shudder a bit more than a 10pm midnight.

  4. Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD (the home of the Rebuilt Church movement) holds two Christmas eve Masses offsite at the Maryland State Fairgrounds exhibit hall, which is a couple miles up the road from their church. They can comfortably accommodate several thousand attendees at 4:00 and 6:00. This move has been a key part of their growth strategy, allowing them to seriously promote attendance at these Masses to the general public. Every year after Christmas, they get a wave of new registrations from people who attend Christmas, have a positive experience, and then end up joining the parish. They have found it easier for unchurched people to try out a service at a familiar public venue than in a church which can be intimidating for many people (especially if you are cramming them in like sardines.) If your goal is to reach the unchurched, this is a significant idea.

    When I hear of parishes hosting 8, 10 even 12 Christmas Masses between their church and gymnasium, I would seriously consider going offsite to a venue that is built to handle the crowds. Look at high school auditoriums, theaters, banquet centers, hotel ballrooms, etc. They have the seats and other infrastructure (lobby, restrooms, parking) to handle big crowds.

  5. A little tangent, but the distribution of Holy Communion to the people at a Midnight Mass is a mid-20th century phenomenon. Before that it was forbidden. It started easing after Pius X, initially beginning with religious houses and then by the late 30s being allowed in parishes, though bishops could still prohibit it.

    1. @Joshua Vas – comment #5:
      What would be the reason to forbid distribution of Communion to the laity? Was it forbidden at other times as well or just Christmas?
      Growing up in the 60’s/70’s I remember being told that Christmas was one feast when you could receive Communion twice: once at “Midnight Mass” and then again in the morning. This was perhaps an innovation of the liturgical reforms. But I can’t imagine forbidding Communion. Didn’t Jesus say, “Take and eat, all of you?” I guess over the centuries we really got off track. I guess it made for a short Communion chant/hymn.

  6. Christmas Carols begin at 10 pm, Mass begins at 10:30 pm. Mass “hopefully” ends around 12 midnight, thereby legitimately referring it to as the “Midnight Mass”. We’re so clever…

  7. I asked one of my liturgy committee members to do a survey of area Catholic Mass times and service times of protestant/evangelical churches. There has been a clear shift to Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day.

    Among our area Catholic parishes, 7 of 12 polled have just one Mass on Christmas Day, and some of these are the largest parishes in the diocese. Most parishes have one or two vigil Masses and one Mass During the Night, typically at 10:00 or 10:30pm. Two parishes have dropped their Mass During the Night completely.

    It gets even more interesting on the protestant/evangelical side. Our nearest megachurch is a typical example, with Christmas Eve 10am, noon, 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm with no service on Christmas Day. Among our area protestant/evangelical churches, only 1 out of 8 has a service on Christmas day–the other 7 are closed.

  8. As someone from Croatia, I find this disappearance of the Midnight Mass in English-speaking countries very interesting (and confusing).
    In the recent years there are more Vigil Masses (often called “dječja polnoćka” – lit. “Midnight Mass for children”, starting around 8 p.m.) but the Midnight Mass starting at 12 p.m. is the standard that I don’t see changing any time soon.

  9. This is very interesting. I would guess that, as is often the case, a charism of the Church of England is to preserve the tradition. I have been ordained 20 years and have never celebrated the Mass in nocte at other than midnight. There is something very special about the ‘middle of the night’ into which the eternal Word leapt. Yes, occasional problems with the drunk. But there are worse things to deal with. I find rather than crabbiness by Christmas lunch there is a strong sense of satisfaction, something fulfilled.

  10. At this time of the year I am always reminded of Alphonse Daudet and his story collection which includes “Les Trois Messes basses”. Aside from his evocation of life in a French country parish, it is a ‘good insight’ into ‘things as they used to be for the pious folk and their clergy in the 19th century celebrating Christmas both at the liturgy and afterwards. I find it worth an annual read.

  11. In Ireland, early evening Masses are much more common. In many parts, for historical reasons I won’t enter into but sometimes involving alcohol, midnight Mass wasn’t so common or public. We also, like England and the USA, didn’t have a Christmas Eve meal of fish. That tradition would encourage waiting to celebrate Christmas on….well…Christmas Day beginning at midnight. Perhaps a stronger Advent observation (like not decorating out houses before Christmas) would make us appreciate genuine Christmas night Masses and the Christmas season itself. Fortunately in Ireland Christmas would never, ever end on St Stephen’s Day!

  12. In our Diocese (Parramatta, in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia), we have 47 parishes. Only 6 don’t have a Midnight Mass. In some the Mass during the night looks like it has been shifted forward (to about 10:30), but in others it looks like it has been cancelled altogether. One parish usually has a very small number of parishioners, with 3 Masses across two Mass centres for Christmas. I can imagine that the elderly parish priest needs some rest to get through Christmas while keeping his health and safety intact.

    It’s not the same, however, in rural Australia. In our neighbouring diocese west of Sydney, there are only two Midnight Masses, mainly because the limited number of priests available are driving long distances to multiple towns to celebrate Christmas Masses.

  13. As noted the origin of midnight mass was the old rule of no vigil anticipated mass, so mass began at the first stroke of midnight. With the dawn of vigil masses the midnight mass has no prominence. In most US parishes the first Mass usually at 4:00 is the big Mass. We go with the 10:00 scheme. Sung Mass Procession and incense et al, to a half empty church. Most folks prefer the very early Vigil Mass or the Day Masses. I for one do not miss the midnight Mass. Going to bed at 2:00 am on Christmas morning and them up at 6:00 and trying to be warm and welcoming to the Folks at the 4 am Masses was a real hardship.

  14. Our two-priest, four-church pastoral region (the fourth parish having been added just in July) offers this schedule:
    December 24
    4:00 PM St Lawrence
    4:30 PM St Joseph
    5:30 PM Immaculate Conception
    6:30 PM St. John
    10:30 PM Immaculate Conception
    11:00 PM St Joseph

    December 25
    8:30 AM St. John
    9:00 AM Immaculate Conception
    10:00 AM St. Joseph

    St. Joseph is the largest parish (at 1100 families) and largest church (750 seating capacity), while St. John has a seating capacity of about 200. The regional planning team had originally given St. Joseph an 8 p.m. Mass (half an hour later than its pre-cluster time) but staff asked for the return of a late Mass. We’ll have to see how the parishioners respond.
    The churches are in close proximity, with 9 miles separating the two that are farthest apart. I’m not sure how the priests are divvying up the nine Masses.

  15. Our televised Mass at the Cathedral of Phoenix is at 11pm and may not end before 12:30am.

    Any desert dwellers (or those from elsewhere) reading this are welcome to attend or watch on TV, listen on radio, or watch live on the Internet.

  16. At my parish, we have 15 masses according to the following schedule:
    All are standing room only. 700 people fit in the pews in the main Church, about 300 in the basement.

    Christmas Eve: Children’s Masses:
    Families with names M – Z 4:00 pm &
    Families with names A – L 6:00 pm

    Regular Christmas Eve Masses
    8:00 pm, 8:30 pm (Basement), 10:00 pm, 10:30 PM (Basement)

    Summorum Pontificum Mass
    Midnight (12:00 am) with Carols/Christmas Music at 11:30 pm
    Additional Masses at side altars Begin at 12:30, 1:00 and 1:15.

    Christmas Day:
    8:45 am, 10:30 am, & 12:15 pm

    Summorum Pontificum Mass
    Mass at Dawn 6:00 am
    Mass of the Day 10:00 am (basement)

    1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #19:
      Masses by Last Name? How well does that work? What was the origin of that? I’m both seriously intrigued, but also somewhat amused.

      I’m at a brand new parish in the Pacific Northwest. So we had surveys (and more surveys) about Christmas Mass times. A common theme was “a ‘midnight Mass’ would be lovely, but I would never go.” So we have 2 packed Christmas Eve Masses at 4 pm (families with young kids) and 6 pm (families with teenagers)–ideally it would be 4 pm and 5 pm, but that’s just not practical. And a single (poorly attended) Mass on Christmas morning, which basically has senior citizens and empty nesters.

      Finally, we also started a Sunday Mass in Spanish this past year, and oddly enough, most of our Hispanic families said they don’t go to Mass on Christmas, and they didn’t want a Christmas Mass in Spanish. Any other communities experience low attendance of Spanish-speaking parishioners?

    1. @Brian Culley – comment #20:
      Those are the EF Masses.

      We have 4 Priests stationed at the Parish, and 6 retired Priests within the boundaries of the Parish. All the retireds continue to offer Mass at the Parish. About 1/2 offer the EF and 1/2 offer the OF on a regular basis. Maybe 1 or 2 offers both on a regular basis.

  17. At my parish in Columbus, Ohio, our pastor polled the membership to choose the Mass in the Night — at midnight, where it’s been as long as I’ve been here, or at 10 pm. It was a tie. So we are still at midnight. Vigil Mass at 5 pm, Mass in the day at 10 am.

    Other parishes I know of: Cathedral, vigil at 4 and 6 pm; in the night at midnight, preceded by a 1-hour concert; Mass in the day at 10 am. Newman Center at Ohio State University: Vigil Mass at 5:30 pm; special “Blue Christmas” Mass (that has been discussed in this forum previously at http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2012/12/02/expecting-a-blue-christmas/) at 8 pm; Mass in the night with music prelude at 11:30 pm; Mass in the day at 10 am.

  18. Also I wonder if at any place the Mass at dawn is celebrated.

    The big crowds are at the vigil Masses, both here and in other places I’ve lived since it was introduced.

  19. I’d also be interested in RP Burke’s question. At our place, the vigil Masses (4 and 5:30, in separate parishes, as we’re two parishes that share ministries) are packed. Our midnight, which is at midnight (preceded by half an hour of music) gets an OK turnout. In years past, the two morning Masses have had pretty poor turnouts, so this year we’re just having one.

  20. I would love to learn more about the history of forbidding Communion at Midnight Mass. What is a good source for that?

  21. I am the Organist/Choirmaster at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas. We have a 5 and a 10 pm service. I think these times are great!

  22. My first Christmas midnight mass was 1957, and most people in the congregation received Communion as they typically did at every mass. As a choir member, I had to sing at both midnight and 10:15 the next morning, and always received at both. I’ve never heard of a practice of forbidding reception at midnight mass or at the restored Easter vigil. That is quite foreign to my experience of the pre-VII church.

  23. Apparently the Congregation of Rites forbade it in 1641, and also forbade other Masses before dawn (in reaction to the practice of priests allowing communication by the congregation at Low Masses directly following the solemn Midnight Mass); then again, it appears there were indults and noncompliance, shock of shocks.

  24. We have a kiddies Mass at 5pm which is packed, an 8pm “midnight” mass which is also packed and a 10.30 am morning mass that is a tumble weed zone. Unfortunately I am rostered to play in the morning.

  25. What timing! Here’s a blurb from our local newspaper’s “Looking Back” column–just in yesterday’s edition.
    December 19, 1939: “St. Joseph Church will discontinue holding midnight Mass to start the celebration of Christmas Day, which has been the parish custom for the past several years. Instead the pastor will return to the former custom of holding this Mass at 5 a.m. The men’s choir will begin at 4:45 a.m. to sing Christmas carols….”

  26. It is regrettable, in my opinion, that Catholic parishes have more Masses on Christmas Eve excluding the Mass in the Night) than Christmas Day. Some parishes in my diocese have a Mass at 3 PM, to get the bigger crowd and the bigger collection!! I hazard a guess that most Catholics today attend Christmas Mass on the Eve (the Vigil Masses, not the Mass in the Night) than on Christmas Day. And in many places, the Christmas Day Mass(es) are at a time when the Mass at Dawn is no longer celebrated.

    However, a Methodist church nearby is having 7 Christmas Eve services (none on Christmas Day), and the first one is at 12 noon!

  27. Cathedral of Saint Joseph, Sioux Falls – Midnight Mass at Midnight! And we do lessons and carols at 11 PM. I’ve only been here for two Christmases, but both have been standing room only by about 11:30 PM.

    Apparently one of the main reasons for inventing Lessons and Carols in England was to keep people out of the pubs on Christmas Eve (or, I suppose, to give them time to sober up before midnight mass started).

  28. Working with families, I found a number favored Mass on Christmas Eve so they could begin the celebrations with the emphasis in the right place. Christmas Day is often a mad scramble between several homes and involves time on the road and more than one dinner table.

  29. We have two simultaneous Masses (one in the church, one in the gym) at 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve and one at 6:00 p.m. (all packed with over 1,000 people at each, then Midnight Mass at midnight (with a pretty full church, and Christmas Day Masses at 9:00 and 10:30 (both sparsely attended.)

    Down the block, the largest United Methodist “mega-church” in the country has a full slate of services all day on Christmas Eve (none on Christmas Day), and they ANTICIPATE Christmas Eve with several services on December 23!

  30. Shannon O’Donnell : Working with families, I found a number favored Mass on Christmas Eve so they could begin the celebrations with the emphasis in the right place. Christmas Day is often a mad scramble between several homes and involves time on the road and more than one dinner table.

    They may indeed be well-intentioned, but it seems to me they manage to get things exactly backwards in the end. The effective message is that we get the liturgy of the Nativity out of the way so that we can attend to the more important celebrations (which force us to work other things around them in our schedule) on Christmas day. Now, having celebratory traditions beyond just the liturgy is great, but as the Christmas schedules are showing, the liturgical feast has by this point taken a back seat to the aliturgical customs.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #39:
        On the other hand, people do not always conform to theological or spiritual principles time-honored, even those we pundits hold dear.

        The real question to me is how to move occasional churchgoers into a deeper belief, or even plant the seeds of discipleship.

        Speaking for myself, I did not begrudge my daughter who, in her childhood, attended Midnight Mass with me and my wife, and after being put to bed, awoke for family presents early so I could be off to open the church for 8am Mass. Nor do I feel slighted that other families open gifts at the crack of Christmas Dawn rather than celebrate that Mass with Psalm 97. Nor do I feel bothered that the Church can still slot worship late on a Christmas Eve afternoon and so accommodate grandparents, children of divorce, travelers, and other modern developments. I would not be eager to dismiss Shannon’s point.

        A pastor is going to have to come up with something a heck of a lot more inspiring than “exactly backwards” or “rationalization.” And it will take a generation or more to reverse it. Most pastoral ministers don’t see that as the battle to fight. I’d be grateful for a less commercialized Christmas, and for the return of the multitudes on Holy Family Sunday. That latter bit would be a special example of prayers answered. And if it took overloading Christmas Eve to get it, I would consider it a good investment.

  31. “A pastor is going to have to come up with something a heck of a lot more inspiring than “exactly backwards” or “rationalization.” ”

    I don’t entirely disagree. But it won’t help to rationalize rationalization, either. If there’s a sufficient degree of getting-it-out-of-the-way among the flock, it also won’t help to remain in denial about it. That said, I don’t think all “pastoral realities” have to be further enabled. I’ve certainly witnessed ministerial assumptions jump ahead of congregations in this regard. It’s good to identify assumptions, and look deeper at assumptions below the surface assumptions. It’s not like Christmas Eve itself is any less potentially a frenzied day for families than Christmas Day.

    I consider the regular reports of Easter Vigils being conducted on Holy Saturday afternoon in certain parts of the US (Florida in particular). Is that a battle worth fighting?

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #41:
      Agreed that many pastoral people get a little too far out in front of the flock. Recalling a Christmas past, I remember a priest who once asked me about dropping the penitential rite at Midnight Mass. About a minute before the start–would the musicians get the hint?

      It was really a needless thought: why save thirty seconds when most of the attention is on singing the Gloria for the first time in a month?

      For my part, I strove against big choirs at the first Christmas Eve liturgy in my last parish. Children’s choir at midnight would have been my first choice, but the director nixed that.

  32. It’s sad though, with all these “vigil” Masses being served, people coming to church won’t even hear the nativity story in the Gospel reading, and let alone the prologue of St. John’s Gospel on the day itself! I’m sure that all those names in the genealogy reading at the vigil just confuses everyone, especially the children.

  33. While the two Masses I presided over on Christmas Eve (3:00 and 5:00 PM)) were very, very, very crowded, I was surprised at how truly healthy the Mass attendance was on Christmas Day for 10:45 AM and 12:15 PM Masses.

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