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An ode to Christmas Eve mass, the festive season’s greatest social occasion


By Edaein OConnell
24th Dec 2023
An ode to Christmas Eve mass, the festive season’s greatest social occasion

Christmas carolling, a chat with your best friend from primary school who you only ever see at this mass and the chance of a sneaky pint afterwards – Christmas mass is the festive season’s greatest social occasion.

For as long as I can remember, I have been primed and prepped to sing at Christmas Eve mass.

As a child, my mother put me through grilling practices in the weeks before the big night for fear I’d make a show of myself in front of the parish.

As I became older and much wiser, I was left to my own devices. The trials and tribulations of my months accumulated into one night, as I poured my heart, soul, and any alcohol left-over from the 12 pubs of Christmas into my rendition of O Holy Night.

The performance is always an emotional one. It feels like coming home. Coming back to my roots, my neighbours, my childhood.

I am what you could call a lapsed Catholic. My relationship with the church became fragile a long time ago and while I believe in something, I can’t unite that belief with religious devotion. And so my church time has been reduced to few visits in a year – but there is something different about Christmas Eve mass.

It’s tradition and comfort tied up in a red festive bow. People turn out their best coats while their hair looks better than ever and the make-up is always just right. School friends and your old GAA team grow up across the aisle from you. People loiter for the chat afterwards, while others dash off to avoid getting cornered by an old teacher… or to ensure they get a good seat in the pub, where everyone will evitably end up, “just for one”.

Last Christmas we were still able to have mass, but with no Christmas carolling for a start, no hanging around either as everyone needed to be in and out in under an hour. And for the first time in history, you needed a ticket for the birth of Jesus. It would have been easier to get a ticket to a Bruce Springsteen concert. I don’t think God ever envisaged that the birth of our Lord and saviour would be a ticketed event, but even the most-holy of us couldn’t escape the ravages of the year that was.

As a child, Christmas Eve mass is the precursor to Santa. You accept the drawn-out nature of the evening as a step closer to early-morning presents. As an altar server, it was the reward for your expert bell-ringing efforts throughout the year, which usually came in the form of a selection box and a joyful skip out the door. As a teenager, you dread it. Because the young lad you shifted at the Christmas youth club disco the week before always decided to sit in direct view of you.

As an adult, it becomes like a childhood reunion. Familiar faces that your phone has shown you standing in front of the Sydney Opera House or the Burj Al Arab or clinking cocktails on a Manhattan rooftop now suddenly pepper the crowd, their childish features still evident under beards and make-up. As an adult, you become thankful that you’ve all made it that far, watching time pass each year from different church pews, surreptitiously gawking at one another.

The joy of Christmas Eve mass is that it is like no other. It doesn’t feel like a Sunday ritual or a divine procession to tune out of. For once, the church is packed. People clamour together while trying to squeeze every inch of themselves into the tight pews. Grown men arrive tipsy after festive pints. Forced to put on a good jacket and get it together by their wives, partners and mothers.

Someone always falls asleep during the sermon. Babies bawl and a toddler finds their way to the altar to inspect the crib. People who never usually sing perform Silent Night with emotion.

I am not a religious person, nor are many others who step in the doors of a church on Christmas night. But I do believe in people. I believe in the power of community and togetherness, and the joy which radiates from both. The simple shake of a hand or a touch on the back takes on more significance on Oíche Nollag.

The last few festive seasons were strange and new, the family gatherings replaced by something less intimate. Less coming home and more staying put. While we have grown to accept new realities, I won’t accept the changing of this one Christmas tradition. You can tell me that I should go to mass more, or question my affinity for holyness on one night of the year, but have you ever thought about how lovely it is? How truly unique it is that people are still willing to come together and herald in the birth of something new?

This year, I hope my mother is piling on the pressure. And I hope, more than anything, that I’m pouring every last drop of me into my rendition of O Holy Night.

Photography by Pablo Clemente on Unsplash.