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

Without 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 just won't be the same. Edaein O'Connell pays tribute.


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.

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

 

An elaborate school reunion

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 hair looks better than ever and the makeup 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".

 

2020

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Despite the restrictions that 2020 brought, Christmas mass will take place this year, but it won't be the same. There'll be no Christmas carolling for a start, no hanging around either as everyone needs to be in and out in under an hour.

And for the first time in history, you need a ticket for the birth of Jesus. And at this stage, it would be 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 can't escape the ravages of the year that has been.

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 alter 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 makeup.

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 goodness of it all

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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 alter to inspect the crib. People who never usually sing, perform Silent Night with quiet 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.

This festive season will be strange and new. We don't know what it will look like or how we will feel. The family gatherings will be replaced by something or intimate.

Less coming home and more staying put.

While I've grown to accept the constraints of this year and reality that life will be strange for a while longer, I won't accept the changing of this one Christmas tradition in the future.

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?

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How truly unique it is that people are still willing to come together and herald in the birth of something new?

This time next 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.

Featured image: Pablo Clemente on Unsplash


Read more: A parents' guide to Christmas spirit (and toy-hungry children)

Read more: How to mind your mind this very unusual Christmas

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