When Lee and Diana Sundermeier follow their headlights to midnight worship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Bowling Green on Sunday, they’ll be continuing a long-standing Christmas Eve tradition.
“We’ve been attending since our children have been old enough to go,” Mr. Sundermeier, 70, said. “Now they’re married and have their own families.”
Mrs. Sundermeier will sing carols with the church choir, while her husband acts as crucifer, carrying the cross that leads the choir and pastor in an entrance procession. The couple are among the many Christians who count the candlelight, carols, and opportunities for spiritual reflection at their church’s midnight service as a time-honored Christmas tradition.
The late-night liturgy has deep roots in the Catholic Church, whose parishes commonly open their doors for worship at 11 p.m. or midnight on Christmas Eve. It is similarly common on the holiday worship schedules of many Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other Protestant communities.
Those include Trinity Episcopal Church, 316 Adams St., where the Rev. Lisa Tucker-Gray ventured that the downtown congregation has been holding midnight worship services for Christmas Eve consistently throughout its 175-year history. It begins at 11 p.m. this year.
“This service, I think, is a great example of how we strive to be ancient and modern at the same time,” the rector said, emphasizing that the service is open to the community.
Father David Cirata, director of the Office for Divine Worship at the Diocese of Toledo, said the tradition of Midnight Mass, a term favored by Catholics, dates back to the late fourth century, when a Christian woman known as Egeria made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Her journal described Christians who would worship in Bethlehem at midnight, then proceed to Jerusalem for a second service at dawn.
The account made its way back to Rome, where faith leaders began to localize the practice, Father Cirata said. These laid the precedent for Christmas Mass schedules in Catholic churches today.
Perhaps influencing those initial worship services in the Holy Land, the priest mused, is the notion that Jesus was born in the nighttime. Christians are likely familiar with the image of shepherds watching their flocks by night, for example, or the wise men following a nighttime star.
“There are many biblical scholars who believe that Christ was born in the middle of the night,” the Rev. Tucker-Gray said. “That’s why we sing ‘Silent Night’ ... or ‘O Holy Night.’ Half of the Christmas carols you would come up with right now have nighttime imagery.”
Earlier Christmas Eve services tend to be the best attended by diocesan Catholics, Father Cirata said. Pastor Rob Spicer, of St. Mark’s Lutheran, sees a similar trend in his congregation.
These services are often more convenient for families with sleepy children, as Elizabeth and Darrell Cousino can attest. While their family likes the midnight service at Trinity Episcopal Church — the first time they ever attended the church was for a memorable midnight worship about six years ago — they plan to take their youngest son, 3, to the earlier 5 p.m. service this year.
The Rev. Tucker-Gray echoed other church leaders in describing the difference between a service earlier Christmas Eve and midnight services primarily in terms of atmosphere. Whereas earlier services are often family oriented, a late-night service tends to be more traditional.
At Trinity Episcopal Church, for example, a double string quartet and full choir will set the mood beginning at 10 p.m. with excerpts from Handel’s Messiah.
St. Mark’s, 315 S. College Drive, is holding services at 5, 7, and 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The latest service is lit entirely by candlelight, with 11 wooden archways, arranged in aisles, casting flickering lights throughout the worship space.
“It’s a pretty service,” said Derik Utz, who regularly attends the midnight service at St. Mark’s with his wife, Beth, and their six children. “It kind of gets you motivated for the next year. For me, it does, anyway. Even though there’s music, it’s a quiet moment where you’re getting away from the gift-giving and thinking about what the season really means.”
“That’s important,” he continued. “Obviously the holiday season is great and the gift-giving is fun, but it’s much more than that, for Christians anyways.”
The midnight service is particularly special to Mr. and Mrs. Utz, who as college students and friends went to another church’s midnight service as a first date.
They’ve made the service part of their family tradition, too, Mr. Utz said, describing a typical year: They’ll attend an earlier service, head home to spend time with friends and family and then return to end the day on a somber and spiritual note.
Their children, who range in age from 11 to 18, are now old enough to stay awake for the service and attend with their parents, he said. When they were younger, Mr. Utz said, he and his wife would arrange for Grandma and Grandpa to stay with them while they attended the service.
This year Christmas Eve coincides with the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season leading up to Christmas. That means that observant Catholics, as well as many Christians, could find themselves filing into the pews twice on Sunday.
(Christians should check their local church schedules, as some are adjusting the times of morning services to maximize attendance.)
At Trinity Episcopal Church, the Rev. Tucker-Gray said morning attendees can expect blue decorations in line with Advent. When they return in the late afternoon or evening for a Christmas Eve, she said, the blue will be swapped out for white.
Mr. and Mrs. Sundermeier said they’re looking forward to their late night.
“I think it has an uplifting spiritual message,” Mrs. Sundermeier said of the service. “It makes you contemplative about the birth of Christ and feel the real meaning of Christmas.”