As a boy, Christmas Eve was simply the greatest day of the year. No other day came close. Rather than being one of the shortest days of the year, it was the longest. The night could not come fast enough. It was the only time my mother did not have to tell me to go to bed. Fast forward three decades and December 24 is still one of the longest days of the year, but for different reasons. And, like the ten-year-old me, no one has to tell me to go to bed!
Christmas Eve began as the last day of Advent. Morning Prayer and Mass were in violet, not yet in gold and white. I closed the office at noon. I would have preferred to give everyone the whole day off, but a holiday for everyone else is a holy day for us. There is always much to be done. I went home at about 1pm and tried to rest my eyes for half an hour or so. I would have to be back at church at 3:15 to prepare for the 5pm liturgy. Before I left for church, my family and I opened our gifts to each other as is our custom.
For ten years, we’ve had the first of two Christmas Eve masses at 6pm. It has always been the largest by attendance (by far) but the numbers have been slipping. I knew we were losing people to family dinners. In a perfect Christian world, we would plan our family dinners and traditions around the liturgy, but we do not live in such a world. I am not willing to give up too much, for then we will never live in that world. The earliest I am willing to go is 5pm, which we did for this year. Attendance was up 30% from the previous year.
It was a good, traditional liturgy. Sung Martyrology at the beginning, procession to O come all ye faithful, young girl carrying the Bambino, blessing the crèche, the whole bit. I believe we have a duty to offer our best to the masses when they come to mass. The Incarnation is so essential to the story of our salvation and so misunderstood that we can’t afford to cut corners. It is hard to present one of the central acts of salvation to many who haven’t been soaked I the story. It’s one of the hardest sermons of the year. I’d rather err on an appeal to the Mass instead of base mass appeal.
The homily for both Christmas Eve masses was on Christ as the light in the darkness. I was pleased to introduce Wisdom 18.14-15 to people who have never heard it before.
After mass and setup for the midnight mass, a trip home to eat and rest. I am not, by nature, a night owl. I would be very happy to turn in at 9pm every night. I managed to squeeze in the First Evening Prayer of Christmas before heading back to church. I physically struggle at the Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve. Not so much sleepy, but my mind is mushy and my voice gets weak. I’ve tried every trick to coat the throat and energize the mind, but nothing works. My wonderfully devoted servers provided a “craft services” experience for the acolytes before the 11pm mass. Hot apple cider, cookies, and other things coated in sugar were provided for our various necessities.
While at the caffeination station, I was notified of a mental health incident at the overflow shelter. I walked down to our parish hall to see a woman in great mental distress, triggered by past memories of trauma on Christmas. Her story and circumstances were hard to hear but I was very pleased she wished to go to the hospital on her own. I continue to be grateful for our volunteers and team members who are so good at diffusing rather than elevating situations like this. My colleague, who spearheads the shelter, once reminded a group of church members that we sometimes have a difficult time keeping everything together and we often have the best possible circumstances to deal with. Imagine trying to keep your “stuff” together when you have the worst circumstances to deal with. It was a helpful and sobering reminder.
The Midnight Mass did not start at midnight, but at 11pm. I would love to keep the old tradition and starting the first mass at midnight, but the stamina is not yet there – especially mine. I kept my voice together better than in years past. The attendance was up over last year, but not near the numbers or percentage of 5pm. Midnight Mass seems to be a dying tradition but I am not willing to euthanize it.
My daughter sang the opening line of Once in Royal David’s City and I was very proud father beaming in the sacristy. We left the church after 1am, with incense lingering thick and the echo of hundreds of wishes of Merry Christmas.
The next morning came quickly. Children were up at 7am, presents were opened by the tree, coffee was made, and Morning Prayer was quickly said while the children were surveying the loot. The Mass of Christmas Day was at 10am.
I grew up among the majority of never going to church on Christmas Day. My church never offered it. It never occurred to me. With many Christmases now under my belt as a priest, I cannot imagine why a church would not offer mass on Christmas Day and not offer their very best. I don’t understand, and I don’t wish to judge, why all clergy aren’t in church on Christmas Day. This is the day of Christ’s birth! We don’t attend the Easter Vigil and then take Easter Day off. I completely realize it’s a day associated with family, but that is only because it is first a day of religious observance.
Christmas Eve means so much more because of Christmas Day and vice versa. We had a sung mass with a skeleton crew in every position. My wife handed out bulletins. My boys were servers. My daughter was 1/3 of the choir. Despite the small number of people available, it was simply wonderful. Mass ended just after 11am. We cleaned up and went home, tired and content. Evening Prayer came later at home.
It was nothing at all like the Christmases I grew up with. But it was everything like the Christmases I want to grow into.
On the Feast of St Stephen, I said Morning Prayer in the side chapel and mass at the main altar, near the lighted trees and poinsettias. I was most pleased to offer the sacrifice in the presence of a first class relic of the Protomartyr. I absolutely love keeping the three holy days after Christmas Day and I think it is vital the church keep them. The office is closed for the most part, but I checked on some things in the office and went home. I took the children to the movies in the afternoon. It was my first time in the reclining movie theatre chairs (I feel asleep). In the evening we made S’mores over the new fire pit I received at Christmas. We sang Good King Wenceslas and played games. We also bickered and got on each other’s nerves, too. We are very much a normal family.
Evening Prayer and then, bed.