It’s here again, that special time of year, which at this point in my life doesn’t feel all that special anymore. It feels like shopping. Shopping and lists of things to do, buy, wrap, ship, light, hang on a tree, cook in a casserole, write in a card, dress in a Santa suit, steal while the villagers hold hands and sing “Fah who for-aze! Fah who for-aze!” (And adding to my anxiety, due to the marketing schedule of major corporations, is my craving for a Shamrock Shake right about now. Color me confused.)
Regardless of your winter celebration of choice, there is bound to be some amount of obligation and stress attached. If not, you’re doing it wrong, and nobody’s had the nerve to tell you. Now try harder, fail bigger and get in the spirit of things.
My extended family celebrates Christmas. Personally, I belong to that special group of individuals who celebrates the social aspect of just about any celebration you throw our way, as long as there’s dip and music. You may recognize us: the Lazy Catholics, the Lazy Jews, the Lazy Pagans. We light trees, eat latkes and burn Yule logs only to retire to our normally scheduled program without so much as a spiritual hiccup. Things were probably different when we were young.
I remember many Christmas celebrations from my youth—some wonderful, some not so much. Mostly I remember what I wore (pink crushed velvet bell bottoms? good year) or what I received (taco rack? meh). However, what remains constant in my memory is a magic that returned every year, until I was well into my teens, and it never seemed to lose its aura of mystery: Midnight Mass. Even now the lapsed believer in me is wistful at the mere mention. And I’ll tell you right now, the two things about Midnight Mass that make it untouchable as far as magic goes: the Midnight and the Mass.
As a child there’s nothing more mystical than midnight. It’s a turning point between today and tomorrow. Staying up till midnight means outlasting the day—amazing! Nothing banal transpires at midnight, only gossamer-winged flights of fancy. Arriving at this bewitching hour awake and in clothing (not pajamas) is a badge of honor. There’s not a single spell in the kingdom that ends at “the stroke of three-o’clock-ish.” Magic!
Mass and I have a long, sordid history. While I spent years trying to avoid mass on Sundays, it rarely worked. I would dutifully arrive and sit (and kneel, sit, stand, sit, kneel, stand, shake hands, kneel, sit and stand). There were prescribed places and words for speaking, and the rest was “brain pause.” Regardless of whether or not the subject at hand was the subject on your mind, keeping quiet was required. While some adult parishioners silently ticked off grocery lists or home fix-it projects, kids stared into the distance, looking forward to the donuts that always followed.
Put these two together and Midnight Mass became a perfect Silent Night storm.
I find myself yearning for Midnight Mass, that combination of the magical bewitching hour plus required quiet, with the promise of a ham buffet somewhere around two o’clock in the morning. I crave that meditative spot to reflect and hide from the noise of the world, where any fights, tensions, worries, obligations or bickering stop for an hour. I want to be surrounded by warm lights, heady perfumes, discarded coats, incense clouds, fresh pine, choir-filled rafters, and elbow-to-elbow solitude, with a soundtrack of the best music ever commissioned by an organized religion. (They really got that part right.)
Of course, the romantic filter through which I view Midnight Mass is also clouded with Christmas Eve sleep deprivation and sugar-cookie crashes. Did the children’s choir really sound like angels? Did everyone sing and bob heads like the Whos of Whoville? Did that baby Jesus just appear out of nowhere in crèche? Hey, that Joseph looks a lot like Vince DiMaggio from fourth grade. Can I have a crush on the fake Joseph and the real Jesus? That seems dangerous.
Odds are I won’t attend a Midnight Mass this year. I feel awkward showing up just for the music and magic. Besides, I’m so afraid that the magic will be gone, replaced with my own skepticism, cynicism, evolutionism, feminism and criticism, making me an anachronism. (We’ll discuss my brief dance with solipsism at a later date, if indeed you exist in time and space to have such discussion.)
Odds are much better that I’ll stay home, plug in the lights on the tree, turn on some Bing Crosby and politely ask everyone in earshot to be quiet. Very quiet. So I can hear my Grinch heart growing three sizes—a Christmas miracle. Or too much dip.
Kim Luke wishes you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Brightest Yule, and a reasonable helping of otherly-and-non-denominational greetings. [email protected] Send comments on this article to [email protected]