Well last night we we survived Midnight Mass with four children with not a single child fall asleep or needed to be taken out. In fact no one fussed at all. Or at least not what anyone but me would have called fussing. Ben did whine and complain in a loud toddler not-whisper but I don’t think anyone who wasn’t our immediate neighbor heard him. And Bella did cry quietly when she realized she’d forgotten her blanket at home (Especially frustrating because the only reason she even wanted it was that before we left I’d prompted her that she might want it.) Anthony squirmed a bit and had one moment of exuberantly grabbing a bulletin and shaking it loudly during the homily. Sophie only beamed sleepily from ear to ear and hugged her blankie in tired excitement.
Abigail asked if I have a secret to getting four kids to Midnight Mass and if I’d post about it on my blog. While I’d love to take all the credit for our success, I suspect much of it is due to the temperament and personality of my kids (and perhaps that is in turn due to my temperament and Dom’s?) And even more I suspect that it is due to sheer grace. Though I can’t stress enough that having a third adult is a giant help—my sister who lives with us and who therefore can be counted as a second mommy when it comes to cranky toddlers because they have known her as a part of their immediate household all their lives. Ben spent the second half of the Mass, after he’d got tired of Daddy, in Auntie Tree’s lap. Had she not been there Dom would have definitely been out in the vestibule. Or more likely were she not in the equation we wouldn’t have gone at all.
Last year when we took Bella and Sophie and Ben we weren’t at all sure it would be a successful experiment. We were quite prepared to throw in the towel if things looked like they were going downhill. But it worked. And the stars in the eyes of my little girls made the loss of sleep and subsequent temper tantrums worth it. They were still talking about Midnight Mass as Advent began this year and there was no way we could tell Bella and Sophie that they weren’t going to go again. The only question in our minds was whether or not to try to bring the boys too. Last year, I’d assumed we wouldn’t try it again this year. There’s no way a 10 month old could cut it, I thought. And yet as the day grew closer, I was more sure that we should try. I still expected that I would probably end up in the back with Anthony; but I felt like we should give it a shot anyway.
And yes tempers were short today and children were overtired and cranky. And there will probably be more and worse repercussions tomorrow and aftershocks for the rest of the week. But they were all very good during Mass. And it was totally worth it.
Every time I looked down to meet Sophie’s eyes her face lit up with a glow that I can’t even begin to capture. Oh the smiles that little girl can give! And most especially when we sang her favorite song, Silent Night. She was in heaven.
Bella had a harder time; but even she doesn’t regret going. And though Ben spent most of the time complaining, his first words were wonder-struck: “Lights! Christmas trees! Look, look, Christmas trees! They have frost on them!” His not-whisper toddler voice carrying too-loud in the hushed church.
Dom says, and I agree, that walking into the church fifteen minutes before Mass began he felt like the guy walking onto the plane with four kids. It seemed like everyone was sizing us up and groaning in anticipation of the bad behavior of our little clan. But then after Mass many people came to compliment us on their good behavior.
Still, even if their behavior hadn’t been so stellar I might still consider the effort well worth it. Why? Because I can think of no other way of teaching them with our actions that Christ is the heart of Christmas. We go to Mass every Sunday. It is one of the prime ways my pre-school children mark time. So getting up for Mass on Christmas morning wouldn’t necessarily make a dramatic impression. But waking in the middle of the night and putting on brand new clothes and going out into the cold and dark to sit in a bright church… we are teaching them that Christmas is worth losing sleep over. It’s worth the effort and the inconvenience.
They get the magic of midnight Mass. Even Ben who kept asking, “Why is it dark? When is it going to be light? Why is it dark?” Why is this night different from every other night? What makes Christmas so distinctive in their world, what makes it different from every other day and night isn’t only the tree and the pile of presents and the festive music on the radio… what makes it different is the magic of getting up when they are normally asleep, the magic of the church transformed into a bright wonderland of light.
Actions speak louder than words and the ancient practice of keeping vigil, of watching during the night hours, teaches our children more than any number of sermons or picture books, more than Christmas movies or any kind of lessons I can devise. This night is holy, set aside for God. We give him our precious night hours, we give up sleep so that we can be present at the manger, present at the feast. We come to adore him in the silent night. We come to listen to the angels delivering their tidings of great joy. We come to hear the proclamation and to sing his praise in the watches of the night. This is the meaning of Christmas not the tree and the trimmings and the presents and the food. If we want our children to understand that Christmas is about Christ, then we need to put the Mass at the center of our family’s celebration. It is worth the sacrifice.
Now, of course, prudence dictates that if your kids aren’t as calm and placid as ours, you might want to wait a few years. Our parish is small and Midnight Mass is not at all crowded. The church was, sadly, only half full. The Mass was not really longer than a normal Sunday Mass. If it were standing room only and we had to get there an hour early to get seats, I’m not sure we would have been there. If it were epically long, then I’m not sure we would have gone. If our kids were the kind that climb the walls, that run up the aisles, that scream and rant, that projectile vomit at the drop of a hat, then we would not have been there. So please don’t feel like I’m condemning you if your calculus leads you to stay away from Midnight Mass. Consider your children, consider your parish, consider all the factors and weigh them carefully. But one of the factors you should weigh in the balance is the value of wonder.
Consider the child whose eyes are aglow, who blinks and rubs his eyes and cranes his neck to see all that is new and different and wonderful as he gazes at the tiny baby in the manger whose birth is the reason for the candy that will make him sick and the presents that he will forget or the present that he will treasure. What will that child remember in years to come? What will speak of Christmas to him when he is older and living on his own? What seeds might you plant now and is today’s labor of missed sleep and temper tantrums worth the harvest he may one day reap?
As I watched Ben ask questions and Anthony stretch his neck to look and Sophie smile and Bella dream, I knew that we would be back again. Maybe next year, maybe not. We’ll see how things look then. But I am determined that even if we have to give it up for a few years Midnight Mass will be what my kids remember most fondly when they think about Christmases of long ago.