Catholics who want to go to Mass for Christmas have a lot of options.
They can go, for example, to the 4:00 pm Mass on Christmas Eve — the one crowded with families, at which schoolchildren perform a Nativity scene, or a children’s choir belts out the familiar carols. Or they can go to Mass on Christmas morning, between opening presents and enjoying Christmas brunch, at a Mass imbued with the joy of the day.
Or they can go to Mass at midnight, participating in one of the most ancient Christmas customs in the life of the Church.
Don’t know much about midnight Mass? Well, you’re about to learn.
How it started
The Church has had a liturgical celebration for the birth of Christ since almost its very beginning.
While in the first centuries of the Church, the nativity was celebrated during the feast of the Epiphany, it soon became customary to celebrate the birth of Christ as a distinct liturgical feast. That feast has been celebrated on December 25 since at least the middle of the fourth century.
In the late fourth century, Christians in the Holy Land become known for a midnight vigil of Christmas in Bethlehem, followed by a candlelit procession to Jerusalem.
And in 440, Pope St. Sixtus III erected a small chapel, with a manger, at the Church of St. Mary Major in Rome. Because of the long-standing Christian belief that Christ was born at midnight, the pope celebrated Mass at midnight that year — a custom which he continued year after year.
A fourth century hymn, Quando noctis medium, recounts the tradition that Jesus Christ was born at midnight:
When the midnight, dark and still,
Wrapped in silence vale and hill:
God the Son, through Virgin's birth,
Following the Father's will,
Started life as Man on earth.
Over time, there arose a custom in which the pope celebrated three Masses for Christmas: The first at midnight, the second at dawn, and the third, on Christmas morning, at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The midnight Christmas Mass became known as the Angels’ Mass, which celebrated the heavenly announcement of Christ’s birth, and his unity with God the Father.
In the eleventh century the custom of offering three Christmas Masses, beginning with midnight Mass, spread throughout the world — a custom which has continued in the life of the Church today — with one set of readings for a Christmas Eve Mass, and different sets for each of the three Christmas Masses.
What time does it start?
Technically, the Church does not have a “Midnight Mass,” as such. Instead, the missal calls the liturgy “Mass during the night,” and it can be offered over a wide range of times.
In some places, it might be offered well ahead of midnight, and in other cultures, it has customarily been offered much later.
According to some historians, the nighttime Christmas Mass was offered for centuries “when the rooster crowed” — which was usually between three and four in the morning.
Some Spanish-speaking countries refer to Christmas Mass during the night as the “Misa de gallo,” — Mass of the rooster — because of that custom. In some places, Misa de gallo still begins very early in the morning.
At St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI moved “Midnight Mass” to 10 p.m. in 2009, and in 2013, Pope Francis moved it to 9:30. Because of a coronavirus curfew, it was moved to 7:30 p.m. in 2020, and will be offered at the same time in 2021.
Current canonical regulations require Catholics to fast for an hour before receiving the Eucharist. But until 1964, Catholics were required to fast from midnight until the time they received Holy Communion. This presented an interesting situation for midnight Masses — Catholics could eat, and drink, until the moment when Mass began. Older priests might recall that from time to time, this meant that Catholics arrived at Mass with a little fire in their belly, courtesy of the drink beforehand. The Church’s current norms make that possibility a little less likely.
What are the other Christmas Masses?
Four Masses, each with its own readings, can be offered for Christmas:
The vigil (Christmas eve)
Mass in the night
Mass at dawn
Mass during the day.
But midnight Mass, in the cold, clear, middle of the night, feels uniquely special, and for many Catholic family cultures, is a sure way to center Christmas on the birth of Jesus Christ.
And for some families (or perhaps only JD’s) there is the long-standing belief that while a family is at Mass on Christmas Eve, God grants family pets the special grace of being able to talk — for just a minute or two — to honor the animals who surrounded the Lord at his birth.
Christmas falls on a Saturday in 2021, and the very next day, Dec. 26, is the Feast of the Holy Family.
Whatever time you go to Mass, may you have a blessed and merry Christmas!