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James Martin, S.J.December 15, 2010

Are we desacralizing Dec. 25 with “Midnight Masses” earlier and earlier the day before?  What’s your opinion?

Over dinner a few weeks ago, I spoke with a group of five parish priests about something that had me concerned, or at least had piqued my curiosity.  What did they think about the shift towards earlier “Midnight Masses” on the 24th as a way of making Christmas liturgies more convenient, especially for families and the elderly? 

A few thought that the trend reflected a healthy desire for families to celebrate together at a time when there was less stress, and said that it was a sensitive pastoral response to a real challenge faced by many parishioners; some noted that attendance in their parish on Christmas Day fallen dramatically; some questioned the long-term affect of the shift to Dec. 24 as the day for worship.  Most were realists, though, sensing that parishioners had already voted with their feet, and had moved away from Dec. 25.  “Far fewer people go to Mass on Christmas Day in my parish,” said one pastor.  “But our afternoon Masses on the 24th are packed.”  The old joke about the person who calls the rectory to ask, "What time is your Midnight Mass?" is no longer a joke.

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”?

A little background: There are four Masses that begin the Christmas season, each with different readings: the Vigil Mass, the Mass during the Night (often called in English-speaking countries the “Midnight Mass”), the Mass at Dawn and the Mass during the Day.  My question, then, is not whether the Masses are valid, or whether going to Midnight Mass is a good thing.  (They are, and it is.)  Rather, do the earlier and earlier Masses—say 8:00, 4:00 and, as I heard recently, 3:00—on the 24th alter our appreciation of Christmas?  It’s an open question.

To help me understand this, I asked John Baldovin, S.J., professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College, and the author of several books on the liturgy, about the recent history of this shift towards earlier Christmas celebrations.   “It caught on once we allowed, towards the end of the 1950s and 1960s, the Saturday Vigil Mass.  Once that happened, the movement towards earlier Christmas Masses was inevitable.”

"But parishes are moving the Masses earlier and earlier,” he explained, “and often are using the readings for the next day’s Mass.  For example, I’ll celebrate a 4 PM Mass on Christmas Eve, and we’ll use the Christmas Day readings.” 

When I was young, there seemed to be plenty of time to wake up early, open presents, eat breakfast and make it in time for Mass during Christmas morning.  But that was 40 years ago.  By way of updating, and taking something of a random sample, I decided to ask some people on my Facebook “fan page” (an unfortunate name, but it’s the public page, as distinguished from the private one).  Early one morning, I posted the question about the movement.  I was shocked to get almost 140 responses in a few days.  (You can find the answers here  on FB.)  And people were passionate about it. 

Not surprisingly, many spoke about the pressing demands on families at Christmas.  One woman wrote, “Many families, like ours, have to travel on Christmas Day to have dinner--we go to [a town] an hour and a half away, to my brother's. Rather than rush through morning Mass thinking about all that, Mass on Christmas Eve is meaningful and beautiful. And without small children, there is nothing to compare with the opening hymn of Midnight Mass, as the procession begins after the long Advent.”  Another wrote, “I love the early Vigil Mass for the young children and grandchildren.  It gives an opportunity during the evening to talk about the Baby Jesus’s birth.  It certainly does not ‘get it out of the way.’ It prepares the way for Jesus’s birth on Christmas morning.” 

A Jesuit friend suggested that the shift to earlier Masses was also a result of rising crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, when many places were concerned with safety, and reluctant to venture out in the dark.  That may still be a concern in many places in this country.  And elsewhere, too.  One woman posted: “In Kingston, Jamaica, where I'm from, my mother is wary of going to Midnight Mass because of the violence in the city. So attending an earlier mass is convenient for her and safer.”

Families are obviously under great stress at Christmas.  “Christmas is a very busy, stressful time, especially for mothers,” said one. “Balancing the family's needs and schedule (pre-teen, teen, college, married children) to attend Christmas Mass as a family can be a challenge. Choosing a time that ‘works’ for mom and dad to celebrate as a family is insignificant, if it is at 4 PM, 10 PM or midnight. Celebrate, family, and Christ is what matters.”  (Timing is also a concern for the elderly: even Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Midnight Mass last year at 10 PM.)

But perhaps we also need to look at the cultural reasons that make so many Christian families so stressed and, in a sense, unable to attend Masses on Christmas Day.  Is increasing consumerism, and the emphasis on more gifts, forcing families to choose the earlier and earlier Masses?

Some people who posted were concerned: “I do think that all the Vigil Masses--as necessary as they might be (and we take advantage of them often)--lead to a get-it-out-of-the-way attitude,” one woman wrote.  Another coined an interesting phrase.  “We have become a ‘Christmas Eve culture,’” he wrote, “perhaps an outgrowth of 'rushing the season.' Christmas Day, especially Christmas morning has become sacrosanct to families, for opening presents, laying around in pajamas, etc.” 

Do earlier Masses change anyone’s experience of the Feast?  “In San Francisco and in Oakland,” one person posted, “most Christmas Masses start at 10:00 PM--which I feel takes away from the mystery and solemnity of Christmas, and I for one, would appreciate a return to the Midnight Mass.” 

To round out the discussion, let’s return to Fr. Baldovin, who not only understands liturgical history but has a realistic understanding of the stresses placed on families this time of year.  Are Masses being moved up earlier on the 24th?   “Absolutely,” he said.  “More and more, you’ll find churches empty on Christmas Day.  People want to get it out of the way.  They want to have morning of Christmas for opening presents.”

“But I’m a realist and I understand,” he said.  “It works for most people’s schedules and it is one of the few times when families can go to church together.  And there’s a real value there.”

“Once you allow for vigil Masses, however,” said Fr. Baldovin, “there may be a good question to ask: Is convenience the most important consideration?”

What do you think?  I'm curious.

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Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 6 months ago
I think that Christmas, the winter celebration of gifts and family should be held on a different day from Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity.  We should change the way that we celebrate Christmans, the Feast of the Nativity.

I, for one, would welcome a more solemn, silent, and stark celebration of the Nativity.
Joyce Donahue
13 years 6 months ago
We recently returned to having Midnight Mass. The issue when we did not, was actually the pastor's request (I think he said too many Masses, he was tired, etc.) People complained and many went to Mass at midnight in other neighboring parishes.  Midnight Mass is such a tradition for many that it simply does not feel like Christmas without it.  In our area, many still have a family practice of going to Midnight Mass and then going home to special late-night meals. (I think it's a Polish and Slovenian thing - often involves sausages!)

Our ''Family Mass'' (Vigil) on Christmas Eve is packed - attendance at Christmas morning is mostly the elderly, but is fairly well-attended, but Midnight Mass is a mix - normally families with slightly older children, middle-agers, etc.  - from both the Anglo and Hispanic families.
13 years 6 months ago
I don't think vigil masses are a problem.  I think we need to focus on celebrating 12 days of Christmas, until Jan. 6 as the feast of Epiphany always (not a Sunday near it), This emphasis would better complement the four week observance of Advent and serve to counter secular influences by increasing awareness of Christmas as a season, not a day.  A hopeful trend I see is some parochial schools in our area who keep Advent until break and have their pageants and celebrations on Jan. 6 after school resumes.
Marie Rehbein
13 years 6 months ago
My favorite readings are the ones designated for the Midnight Mass.  They are what I associate with Christmas.  However, I am not a night person, so I end up in church when my least favorite reading are read at the last Mass on Christmas day.  When my children were younger, they were often involved in parts of the Mass that was designated the "family" Mass in the early evening on Christmas Eve, and those readings were not particularly Christmasy, either.  I would love the liturgies to be changed so that Christmas day readings are the same as the midnight ones.
Liam Richardson
13 years 6 months ago
The Masses of Christmas should culminate with the Mass for Christmas Day, though I am also fond of the Mass at Dawn. 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.

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.

13 years 6 months ago
I would bet too that the concept of ''fulfilling the obligation'' to participate in Mass on Christmas is lost to the ages. Last I checked, one cannot ''fulfill the obligation'' at any liturgy celebrated prior to 4pm on Christmas Eve, even though many parishes schedule Masses prior to this time.
Joe Mcmahon
13 years 6 months ago
Concerning the attitude of ''Get it over with,'' this holds true also as a background to my Sunday Mass attendance.  It may reveal not a fault, but a good choice.  The priority is to celebrate with the community at the Eucharist.  If I have ten choices of Mass time (itself an abundance of good), by going early I am putting it first, giving it priority, lest anything else get in the way later.  Because we cannot bilocate, we must do things sequentially.  Giving priority to Mass cannot be faulted.
Stephen SCHEWE
13 years 6 months ago
My favorite memories of Christmas liturgies revolve around the quieter services.  I still remember going to Midnight Mass as a college student at More House one year after almost everyone else had gone home; at Communion, two of the remaining musicians went to the choir loft and sang a duet of "Lo, How a Rose ere Blooming" in German and a capella - a mystical moment.  When the kids were little, my wife and I used to take them to a Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve so we could open presents early Christmas morning; we tried to avoid the "pageant" extravaganzas of early afternoon in favor of a service that happened early evening while many people were at dinner.  These days, my adult children and my wife often like to sleep in Christmas morning, so I sing at an early morning service and get home to make them brunch, after which we open presents. I suspect when and if we become grandparents we'll respond to whatever the family's needs are at that time.  As a parish musician, I know it's a strain on the staff to provide so many services, but Christmas is one of the best times for evangelism; you see so many people who don't darken the door the rest of the year.  BTW, Father Jim, I recommended to my cousin's son at Thanksgiving that he join you at St. Francis Xavier for Midnight Mass, and he'll be bringing a friend.  He's hoping for "the works," so do it up big! 
Winifred Holloway
13 years 6 months ago
I remember fondly and with nostalgia the midnight masses of my youth.  However, I didn't begin attending them until I was about 12 or 13, old enough to stay up late.  As an adult, I still cherish the memories.  Midnight masses stopped once we became parents.  I had thought that the MM would be returning once the ''kids'' were grown.  But no.  Now, they have kids and we need to go to the Christmas Vigil.  Someone above noted that perhaps the liturgy should adjust to the new reality.  I would be all for a more reverential liturgy at an earlier hour.  I certainly don't think of Christmas Eve mass as ''getting it over with.''  And alas,  the ''regulars'' stand at the back and sides of the church to accomodate the Easter & Christmas Catholics.  And, you know, I've made peace with that. 
Joe Mcmahon
13 years 6 months ago
None of the above eleven comments mentioned customs brought from other parts of the world.  I could be wrong, but American Catholics with Italian heritage emphasize the big fish dinner on the Eve.  It's a evening of family celebration, whereas we used to abstain til Midnight.  In the 1950's, a religious Brother from Venezuela was much surprised at our custom of absolutely no celebration until Midnight Mass.  Our parish now has five liturgies before midnight, one at midnight, and four on the Day. 
It would be interesting to learn about Catholic Christmas customs in other countries, particularly regarding the time of celebration.
Stephen Murray
13 years 6 months ago
Sure, Fr. James, when people are assured the prospect of damnation if they don't attend, who wouldn't want to "get it over with."?
Mary Ann Daly
13 years 6 months ago
Our 10:00 liturgy is wonderful, and well attended, but the 4 PM children's liturgy is overflowing, and such a joy to participate in. I have been asked to be lector at one on our Christmas morning, and found it flat and rather uninspiring, also very poorly attended.
Midnight Mass? I don't think people would appreciate going back to that at this point, because it's inconvenient for us, especially those of us with children who will be up very early in the morning. I think we can be just as pious and uplifted a couple of hours earlier, and retire before midnight! 
13 years 6 months ago
With all the secular nonsense that dominates the Christmas season, it's a miracle that so many still make it to church at Christmas.  I, unfortunately, understand the get-it-out-of-the-way mentality toward mass at Christmas.  I don't like it, but how does one fight the commercialized Christmas that pushes us to exhaustion in trying to meet all of the obligations, new and old, of the holiday?

I'm with Beth on the first post.  If we can change masses to accomodate the secular, we can change masses to accomodate what's really important about Christmas.  I'm a traditionalist, for sure, but I'd be willing to give up December 25th to Santa Claus.
Jim McCrea
13 years 6 months ago
I'd rather be surrounded by joyful participants at 10PM than the semi-comatose (or semi-inebriated) at midnight who are there to get their tickets punched.

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