The Roman Catholic Church honors Christmas with three separate masses, each with its own distinctive liturgy. The first of these masses takes place in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and is called Midnight Mass. In Spanish-speaking countries, Midnight Mass is known as the MISA DE GALLO, or the rooster’s mass (see also PLYGAIN).
The first Christmas masses were celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Christmas morning. In the fifth century Roman officials added another mass to be celebrated in the middle of the night. Rules in effect from about 400 to 1200 A.D. prescribed that this mass be held ad galli cantum, that is, when the rooster crows. Roosters begin to crow at about three in the morning. Eventually, however, the scheduling of the mass shifted to midnight. Perhaps the popular belief that JESUS was born at midnight influenced this shift. A fourth-century Latin hymn expresses this belief:
When the midnight, dark and still,
Wrapped in silence vale and hill:
God the Son, through Virgin’s birth,
Following the Father’s will,
Started life as Man on earth [Weiser, 1990,52].
In the fifth century a third mass, held at daybreak, was added to the first two. Each of the three masses, however, emphasized a different aspect of the Nativity. The first mass at midnight celebrated the mystery of the relationship between the Father and the Son, the second rejoiced at the birth of the Son on earth, and the third commemorated the birth of the Son in human hearts. Folk tradition translated these three themes into descriptive names for each of the masses. Thus, the Midnight Mass was known as the “ANGELS Mass,” the dawn mass became the “SHEPHERDS Mass,” and the morning mass was called the “Mass of the Divine Word.”
Until the eleventh century, the pope alone held the privilege of conducting three masses in honor of Christmas. After that time the custom spread throughout the Church. Today Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals throughout the world offer Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In addition, television stations in seventy nations transmit live broadcasts of the pope’s Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.