Midnight Mass is a common tradition that has been adopted by churchgoers for centuries. As with many religious traditions that originate from centuries back, it has a long history full of changes and transitions over the many years.
The history of midnight Mass is said to be traced back to Rome, where the tradition of having both a dawn Mass on Christmas Day and a Mass during the day had long existed prior to the adoption of the midnight Mass. Initially, the celebration of the three Christmas Masses was reserved for the pope. It wasn't until 1156 or so that priests celebrated the three important Christmas Masses, as well.
True to its name, midnight Mass traditionally takes place at midnight, which makes it unique, as it is the only Mass in the Roman Catholic Church to do so. It is the first of the three Christmas Masses and follows the vigil Mass, which takes place on Christmas Eve and is not considered to be part of the three Christmas Masses.
The symbolism surrounding this special service is one of the reasons it grew to be such a popular event with churchgoers. That is, the midnight Mass represents the birth of Jesus Christ, an event that is believed to have occurred at midnight on Christmas Eve. There are often displays and re-enactments of the birth of Jesus Christ displayed at Christmas Mass. There has long been a strong interest in the birth of Jesus, an event whose portrayal has expanded in stories and songs such as "Silent Night." It was previously accepted that Jesus was born Jan. 6, and churches continue to celebrate this day, Epiphany, as the day the three wise men brought gifts to the infant Jesus.
Midnight Mass is followed by the dawn Mass and Christmas Day Mass. Many scholars speculate that the transition from darkness to light -- as guests are drawn to the light of the candles of the church in the darkness of the night and eventually to the light that is brought by the dawn -- has important and deliberate religious implications. That is because these motifs of light and darkness are repeated religious symbols that are depicted in the Bible and the prayers said during Mass, such as the opening prayer of midnight Mass, which refers to Jesus Christ as "the true light of the world."
However, despite the rich symbolism involved in the concept of Mass at midnight, the timing of midnight Mass has gone through a transition over the years. Though many churchgoers still gather in the middle of the night to attend midnight Mass, the timing of these services varies from church to church and does not always occur at midnight anymore. In fact, many churches refer to simply the last Mass of Christmas Eve as the midnight Mass, which can be at any time during the late day or night.
This change has received criticism from those concerned with keeping tradition alive. The Rev. Raymond J. de Souza composed an article on the topic -- titled "What time is midnight Mass?" -- published by the Catholic Education Resource Center. It includes an anecdote of the discussion that he has with the parish council of his church regarding this time change: "Some years ago I asked the parish council about why our Christmas Eve Mass was so early. The response from everyone around the table was that it was a convenient time -- early Mass, home for dinner and a party, perhaps some Christmas presents, the children in bed at a good hour and a leisurely Christmas morning to follow."
This shift in one of the most integral qualities of midnight Mass is another example of how even an age-old religious tradition is subject to change.