Once upon a time: Sharing stories of Christmases past

There was a time when midnight Mass was a 5 a.m. liturgical celebration

Midnight Mass hasn’t always been held at midnight.

One of Pope Pius XII’s last great gifts to the Church was the beginning of the restoration of Easter Vigil (time of day and language). By the time the current editions of the Roman Missal became a way of life for us in the West, the Easter rites were well settled in as the way the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were leading us.

Not many folks are still alive who remember the Vigil of Easter beginning around 6 a.m. on Holy Saturday with the next Mass being celebrated on Easter Sunday morning.

A similar evolution occurred with Christmas. For centuries a Mass was celebrated at midnight, another at dawn, and a third Mass later on Christmas morning. There were no Christmas Eve vigil Masses, nor any Christmas afternoon or evening ones. An outside circumstance, World War II, had its influence, too. During World War II, Bishop William L. Adrian directed that there would be no Masses at midnight; that the liturgical texts for midnight be used at a Mass beginning no earlier than 5 a.m. Christmas morning.

I remember those days. The Church was still warm from the penance service, which continued on Christmas Eve well after suppertime. Most churches were packed to capacity as the 5 a.m. hour drew near. People wore coats and hats and scarves and gloves to church – all of which added to the temperature. The choir loft was very crowded with the various choirs – adult, men’s, women’s, high school girls, and elementary school children who might brave the time and the weather to celebrate Christmas.

Every altar boy in some parishes was expected to “vest out” for this principal Mass for the feast. The practices, which had begun around Thanksgiving, yielded a beautiful ceremony.

At the door of the church would be the janitor or sexton with the interior of his hat opened to the sky. The generosity of our Catholic people knew no bounds as the hat was filled to the brim again and again with pocket change and a few bills.

After the war, Mass at midnight was scheduled once again and the Mass at dawn was celebrated at 7 a.m. The organist was back, some of the choirs returned, altar boys were scheduled, and the sexton was back! John T. O’Connor II and I were privileged to serve at the 7 a.m. Mass one such Christmas. Father C. P. Murray, the pastor, was in the pulpit re-reading the epistle and Gospel in English after the celebrant of the Mass had read it in Latin. The celebrant, Father Ned Elliott, the assistant pastor, was seated on the sedalia between John T. and me.

A child got loose from his mother somewhere out in the church, approached the marble communion railing, climbed through it, and tried to climb into the crib. If Father Murray was distracted (the crib was right in front of the pulpit) he didn’t show it, but the rest of the churchgoers were.

Father Elliott gave the order to John to go get the child and he did. He returned across the sanctuary, holding the little boy by his arms from the rear and as he crossed in front of the assistant pastor, Father Ned managed to whisper, “get him out of here.” The child had been silent until now, but when he was taken to the dark, cold sacristy, he yelled out with a blood-curdling scream. Father Murray finished the sermon, the ushers took up the collection, and Mass proceeded.

Perhaps your family has a similar story about a Christmas Mass. Please share it with your family as you gather to observe Christmas this year. Christmas is so very special. It would be sad if a story that could enlighten your family went untold this year. Go tell it on the mountain. Merry Christmas 2014!

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and the historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.


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