One of my strongest childhood memories is the first time I attended Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. I was about 10 or 11 years old, and the practice of Saturday Vigil Mass had not become widespread yet. This meant the idea that you could attend Mass the day before a Sunday or a feast day was not yet on anyone’s radar.
Going to Sunday Mass meant you had to go on Sunday. Going to Christmas Mass meant you had to go on Christmas - that is, sometime during the 24-hour period of December 25th. So, the earliest a Christmas Mass could begin was midnight. The Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was a very popular and widespread tradition. Virtually every parish did it. Even now, over a half century after Vigil Masses became commonplace, people still use the expression “Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.” Of course, nowadays when folks use that phrase, they’re often referring to a Mass that takes place on Christmas Eve and begins at 7 p.m. or 9 p.m.
This situation leads to comical phone conversations like this:
Parishioner: “Hi Father. What time does Christmas Eve Midnight Mass begin?”
Priest: “It’s called ‘Midnight Mass.’ What time do you think it begins?”
Parishioner: “Umm, midnight?”
Priest: “No, nine o’clock. Who wants to stay up that late?”
Back in the 1960s, my brother and I convinced our parents to take us to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. We had heard so many intriguing stories about it from classmates who had gone in the past. The only Masses we had ever attended took place during daylight hours. Going to Mass in the dead of night seemed so mysterious and exciting. To be honest, the main reason we wanted to go was because the next day we would be able to play with our Christmas presents all day long, rather than stop in the midst of our revelry and get dressed to go to church.
The only thing we didn’t account for is the fact that when you’re around 10 years old, staying awake well past midnight is the equivalent of an adult staying awake for three straight days. You get so punchy and disoriented that you can doze off while standing up.
Even though I was exhausted, I still have some vivid memories of that night. I remember the church looked so different because it was not daytime. The candles seemed so much brighter. I remember seeing some of my friends there, and they looked as tired as I was. I remember it was bitterly cold that evening, and one of my mom’s friends explained to us before Mass that she let her daughter open one Christmas present early — a new winter coat — so she wouldn’t get frostbite going to church. Most of all, I remember the place was packed. In the middle of a pitch-black freezing night, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the birth of Our Savior. It made a very strong impression on me, even though at the time my grasp of and interest in religious doctrines was pretty much nonexistent.
I suspect the reason our parents agreed to go to Midnight Mass was because they thought keeping us up so late would make us sleep-in on Christmas morning. Typically, we would awaken at 3:30 am and tiptoe around the living room, gazing in heart-pounding wonderment at all the gifts Santa had delivered. (By the way, our “tiptoeing” didn’t exactly make us silent, as we heard our father’s gravelly voice rumble down the hallway, “Go back to sleep, dammit!”)
Since it was Christmas, all the normal rules of juvenile physiology were thrown out the window. We got home from church well after 1 a.m., climbed into bed, and proceeded to zonk out right away. And then… Boom! Wide awake at 3:30 a.m. Our grand plans for playing with our presents all day long were dashed, however, when we fell asleep on the living room rug at about 9 a.m., where we slept soundly for the next six hours.
Ah, childhood memories of Christmas. Make sure to share your stories with loved ones this year, and create some new memories with your children and grandchildren. And don’t forget, as it says in Luke’s gospel, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”