Midnight Mass


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Midnight Mass

The Roman Catholic Church honors Christmas with three separate masses, each with its own distinctive liturgy. The first of these masses takes place in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and is called Midnight Mass. In Spanish-speaking countries, Midnight Mass is known as the Misa de Gallo, or the rooster's mass (see also Plygain).

The first Christmas masses were celebrated at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on Christmas morning. In the fifth century Roman officials added another mass to be celebrated in the middle of the night. Rules in effect from about 400 to 1200 be held ad galli cantum, that is, when the rooster crows. Roosters begin to crow at about three in the morning. Eventually, however, the scheduling of the mass shifted to midnight. Perhaps the popular belief that Jesus was born at midnight influenced this shift. A fourth-century Latin hymn expresses this belief:

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 [Weiser, 1990, 52].

In the fifth century a third mass, held at daybreak, was added to the first two. Each of the three masses, however, emphasized a different aspect of the Nativity. The first mass at midnight celebrated the mystery of the relationship between the Father and the Son, the second rejoiced at the birth of the Son on earth, and the third commemorated the birth of the Son in human hearts. Folk tradition translated these three themes into descriptive names for each of the masses. Thus, the Midnight Mass was known as the "Angels Mass," the dawn mass became the "Shepherds Mass," and the morning mass was called the "Mass of the Divine Word."

Until the eleventh century, the pope alone held the privilege of conducting three masses in honor of Christmas. After that time the custom spread throughout the Church. Today Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals throughout the world offer Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In addition, television stations in seventy nations transmit live broadcasts of the pope's Midnight Mass from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Further Reading

Baldovin, John F. "Christmas." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia ofReligion. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. ---. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Canadian Heritage:
References in classic literature ?
And, if it was a Christmas Eve, while the great bell, which seemed to emit the death rattle, summoned the faithful to the midnight mass, such an air was spread over the sombre façade that one would have declared that the grand portal was devouring the throng, and that the rose window was watching it.
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Pope Francis' Christmas schedule begins with a midnight mass on Christmas eve also known as the Solemnity of the Lord's Birth which is attended by thousands of worshipers, including cardinals, archbishops and bishops. The mass starts at 9:30 p.m.
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And one of them was midnight Mass. You light a candle and sing 'Silent Night.' I just have amazing memories of being in a little country Church near where my mom and dad lived, being with my family and singing 'Silent Night' while holding our candles.
The tradition of midnight mass on Christmas Eve was first chronicled by Egeria, the Galician woman who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land around 381-384.