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Christmas Traditions: Midnight Mass and the Christmas Crèche

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Christmas Traditions: Midnight Mass and the Christmas Crèche
12/04/2016 No comments Christopher M. Bellitto, PhD

When was the first Midnight Mass and how did it come about? How about the Christmas créche or Nativity scene?

The First Midnight Mass

The very name of Christmas comes from the “mass of Christ” and dates at least to 1038 and a reference to an Old English phrase, “Christ’s Mass.” Words in Dutch and German also refer directly to the Mass celebrated on the holy day.

There is no Scriptural tradition from the gospels that Jesus was born at midnight, but there is a passage in Scripture that indicates midnight:

“For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone,
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven.”
(Wisdom 18:14-15)

The first midnight mass was celebrated in Bethlehem in 380, although on January 6 and not December 25 because the Egyptian calendar still ruled there.

The First Christmas Créche

The Nativity scene was first seen in Rome as a fresco in the St. Sebastian catacomb in the late 300s. Pope Sixtus III, in the middle of the fifth century, set up an elaborate recreation of the Bethlehem story when he renovated the basilica of St. Mary Major. The church still claims to have as relics boards from the original manger, which we hear of as early as the seventh century but certainly in the twelfth century. The manger scene became popular on carved sarcophagi among rich Roman Christians.

St. Francis of Assisi set up the first living Nativity in the Italian city of Grecchio in 1223, beating New York’s Radio City Music Hall by 700 years. Francis used a young girl, a newborn baby boy, and live animals to preach as simply as possible so all could understand the story—a natural appeal at a time when medieval Christians were fascinated by Jesus’ humanity in scenes like this during Advent and Passion plays in Lent.

St. Francis of Assisi told a friend: “I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.”

Such an appeal is so strong it is no wonder that Christmas pageants have become a school staple, although it’s not until 1851 that we find the first one, in Boston thanks to German immigrants recreating traditions from home. And, of course, nearly every Christian home sets up a manger scene during Christmastime.

Christopher M. Bellitto, PhD
© 2016 Liguori Publications. All rights reserved.

Want to learn more about Christmas traditions? See Dr. Bellitto’s Christmas Traditions: Why We Do What We Do.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is a frequent public speaker and media commentator on Church history and contemporary Catholicism. He is the author of the Liguori books, Church History 101 and The Living Church, books which bring the history of the Catholic Church to life. His latest book is Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible.


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