When I was a small girl, we never went to Midnight Mass for Christmas. I don't think I was even aware that there was such a thing until I was older and heard others talking about it. Our family clock was set by my father, who was an early bird, and as I was growing up we always went to the first Mass of the day, which was at 6:45 A.M. Of course the early Masses had an advantage then because you had to fast from midnight, so the sooner you went to Mass, the sooner you could eat. We went to this Mass year round, and on Christmas there would usually be a few Christmas carols played on the organ, which I thought was wonderful because most of the year there was no music at all. When I joined the school choir, I discovered that other Masses had music. We sang at the 8:00 A.M. Easter Mass, and nothing had ever seemed so glorious. Of course, then I wanted to go to the Midnight Mass, but my father told me that it was just "a Roman Carnival," and we weren't going.
For years, I wondered what on earth he meant. I had no idea what a "Roman Carnival" was, though the way he said it indicated that it was not anything that should be going on in church. Then, when I was engaged, I visited my fiance's church at Harvard. They had a world renowned boy's choir, which practiced every morning at the 8:00 A.M. daily Mass and gave my future husband a very skewed idea of what Catholic music was usually like. He wanted me to experience their singing in all its glory, so we went to St. Paul's for Midnight Mass that year. We had to get there nearly an hour early to get a seat in the upper church where the choir sang, and although it was very cold in Cambridge, the church was overflowing with people and soon felt overheated. I was attempting to pray and focus on the great miracle of the Incarnation before Mass began, and gradually I became aware that the people in the pew behind me were talking and getting louder as time passed. When the Mass began, they joined in the singing at the top of their lungs, not on key, frequently erupting into shouts of laughter, friendly shoves, and noticeable hiccups. At some point, it dawned on me that the entire group was drunk, and rather uproariously so, and that they had come to church to be entertained by the boys' choir rather than to ponder the mystery of God become Man. And at that moment, I suddenly understood what my father had meant by a Roman carnival. He had grown up in St. Louis, and went to the Irish parish, and I'm certain that his experience of the merrymakers who had imbibed too much before Midnight Mass had led him to conclude that every Midnight Mass was a drunken revelry. And there were entire dioceses where Midnight Mass was forbidden for that reason.
However, when I was married and singing in our parish choir in New Jersey, we did go to Midnight Mass, and it was a very beautiful experience. I was in the choir loft, and felt lifted up close to heaven, and only when the choir clattered down the old wooden stairs to go to Communion, was I reminded that we were only human, not angels announcing the good news to the shepherds. Looking back on all those Christmas Masses now, I can also recognize that one of the realities of the Incarnation is that the Child in the manger came for us all, drunk and sober, and we can't know when his love will transform even the most inebriated heart. May we all be transformed in some way as we celebrate his coming as one of us.