During the past 25 years or so, I have written more than my share of mainstream news stories and columns about religious seasons. It's hard work, to tell you the truth, unless you want to write the same story over and over. I only write the same story over and over unless I am really convinced that the topic is valid and newsworthy. But more on that tomorrow.
I've always been interested in why some churches make a big deal out of worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and others do not. I once attended a Baptist "service of lessons and carols" on Christmas Eve -- early in the evening -- that ended with the Lord's Supper. It was clear that the clergy were trying to offer their people something that felt like a Midnight Mass.
Meanwhile, the Catholic traditions of Christmas Eve are strong and vital. But what if people find it hard to honor the ways of the past? A Denver priest once told me that he knew times were changing when people started calling the parish office and asking this question: "What time is your Midnight Mass?"
Evangelical Protestants have tended to focus on spectacular musical offerings, in concerts, dramas and pageants. The problem, of course, is that these events require the efforts of many, many people and these people have to be in the same place at the same time. How do you do that these days during the craziness of "The Holidays"? Thus, these events began to creep further and further into the early days of December, further from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
All of this leads us to a very sad and mysterious essay in Time by Amy Sullivan, the professional progressive evangelical who is a popular commentator and political consultant. The blunt headline: "Going to Church on Christmas: A Vanishing Tradition."
Sullivan's angle? What about Christmas Day itself? She begins:
Millions of Americans go to church on Christmas Eve. They crowd shoulder-to-shoulder in pews to sing "Silent Night" and light candles and listen to soloists belt out "O Holy Night." More than a few watch nativity plays that recreate the birth of Jesus with a cast of 10-year-olds in bathrobes. When the service is over, they exchange hearty "Merry Christmas!" wishes before getting in their cars and heading home.
And they stay home the next day. Or they drive to Grandma's, or go to the movies. But however they spend Christmas Day -- "the feast of Christmas" on the Christian liturgical calendar -- one way most Americans don't celebrate it is by going to church. While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.
The key to all of this, of course, is that the Midnight Catholic Mass and the similar traditions in Anglicanism, Orthodox Christianity and some other churches offers worship on Christmas Eve and in the early hours of Christmas Day.
Sullivan mentions this:
Some traditions, including Catholics and Anglicans, hold midnight masses on the Saturday before Easter to usher in that holiday. But everyone still shows up the next morning for the traditional Easter celebration, just as Christmas Day remains a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, who are likely to be found in church the day after attending a Midnight Mass. By contrast, the Christmas service everyone thinks of as "traditional" is the Service of Lessons and Carols that many Protestant congregations use on Christmas Eve.
This gets complicated and, yes, schedules and marketing figure into all of this.
However, it seems to me that what we are watching is two different trends, one among liturgical churches and one among Protestants, especially evangelicals. But this is a very important story, if you care about ancient traditions, the liturgical calendar, trends in worship and other matters of doctrine.
So let me ask our readers who are Christians: When did you go to church? When was the real Christmas service, for you?
At my own Orthodox parish, Holy Cross in Linthicum, Md., the Matins service started about 10 p.m. and the Divine Liturgy began just before midnight. Throw in a happy mini-feast to break the Nativity Lent fast and we arrived back home around 2:30 a.m. That's Christmas Day, isn't it?