Top 12 Tips for Being the Best Non-Catholic at Midnight Mass

Photo credit: flickr/Todd Peperkorn
The incense will make you sneeze. Don't worry about it.
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Mash-Ups are beautifully curious and eager to open their lives to traditions and cultures new to them. Of course, that also means we’re more likely than most to find ourselves stuck in a cultural faux pas. So in preparation for Christmas Eve, our Mexican-Colombian-American Mash-Up Layla Bermeo offers her best 12 tips for being the best non-Catholic at Midnight Mass. This guide is non-Catholic-boyfriend tested and Mash-Up approved. If you’ve still got a Hanukkah party this week, you’ll probably want to read our 8 (+1) Tips for being the best non-Jew at the party

Oh, and if you still need to shop (duh, so do we) don’t miss our gift guides. Here’s our 6 Mash-Up Kitchen Must Haves, our 6 Cookbooks for Mash-Up Foodies, and of course, our 6 Ideas for Mash-Up Kids.

It seems inexplicable that my big brother and I attended school at one Catholic institution and went to church at another. Why did we drive far from home to spend our Sunday mornings instead, more conveniently, singing hymns alongside our school friends? Well, for starters, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, our Mexican mailman played “Ave Maria” on his guitar while standing at the front of the church, rather than sitting at an organ in the back. In place of the usual ceramic Jesuses and Marys, we had a crucifix sculpted from a tree trunk by local woodcarving legend Gino Salerno. And the church’s biggest fundraiser wasn’t a bake sale or car wash — it was the annual taco dinner, where you could pile your Styrofoam plate high with red rice, refried beans, crispy tacos, and bilingual blessings. Our Lady of Perpetual Help was farther from our neighborhood, but closer to our community.

As the Cool Pope has shown us, Catholic perspectives and practices are more fluid than they might seem. At their core, though, all Midnight Mass services are created equal. Should you find yourself invited to church in the wee hours of Christmas Eve for such a service — full, sleepy, and possibly a bit drunk after enjoying a Christmas Eve feast of food and wine (no hate) — and wondering what the heck to do, here are my top 12 helpful tips for getting through Midnight Mass like a pro. There may not be beans and rice, but I promise there will be holy water.

1. Find out what time “Midnight” Mass begins.

Midnight Mass — well, let’s say the schedule is flexible. While some churches start the service at midnight, others kick off at 11 p.m. and conclude at 12 a.m. Christmas morning. And verify the information yourself. The one time I trusted my father on this issue, we arrived almost two hours early and a priest stopped by our pew to make fun of us.

2. Clean up, wardrobe and soul.

Although some parishes still abide by the rules of Sunday Dress, many churches are more informal. Whether you decide to don your jeans or not, you’ll want to give the ugly Christmas sweater a break and let your tidy button-down do the job. You can also feel free to give your soul a little scrub by dabbing your hand in the basin of holy water upon entering the church, which is a Catholic cleansing ritual. If you’re not comfortable making the sign of the cross, simply tap your forehead and chest to prepare your mind and heart. It’s refreshing!

3. Graciously accept all handouts.

If you’re new to Midnight Mass, the printed program is your lifeline. Make sure to take it! Typically distributed by wholesome greeters at the back of the church, this pamphlet outlines each phase of the service and includes all of the spoken responses and songs. It’ll tell you what comes next (and help you figure out when things are winding down!). Because Midnight Mass is similar to a vigil, some churches also provide small candles, which you will be asked to light during the mass. Resist the urge to hold it above your head and sway.

Midnight Mass will be more fun if you treat it like a sing-a-long.

4. Sing loud and proud.

Some churchgoers have beautiful voices, and some do not. Regardless of the pitch of your pipes, Midnight Mass will be more fun if you treat it like a sing-a-long. Many of the Midnight Mass songs are Christmas carols that will be familiar to most who grew up with television and/or the Mariah Carey Christmas album, so don’t be shy about showing off your Latin skills during “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” And be prepared to belt out “Joy to the World” when the service comes to its cathartic conclusion.

5. Don’t worry if you’re a step behind the choreography.

Catholic masses are notorious for demanding a head-spinning combination of standing, sitting, and kneeling. Do your best to follow the lead of the people around you. In general, stand for the processions at the beginning and end of the service, as though you are attending a wedding. Catholics sit for the first two readings, presented by laypeople, and stand for the Gospel, read by the priest. Most people kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer and Holy Communion, which recreate the Last Supper. But don’t worry if you’re in the wrong position at the wrong time – even veteran churchgoers occasionally miss a beat. Also, God understands arthritis.

6. Look for the personal touch.

For Catholic kids, the Homily is arguably the most boring part of the mass. This sermon, delivered by the priest after the Gospel reading, is usually without props, music, or audience participation. But importantly, it’s an unscripted speech that allows the Padre to express a particular perspective and offer guidance to his congregation. If you’re curious, and not too tired out by the standing-kneeling-sitting routine, this moment in the mass will give you a revealing look into the specific culture of the church.

7. Shake hands with strangers.

This is my personal favorite. The Sign of Peace invites a friendly exchange between you, your family, and people you have probably never seen before in your life. Following the collaborative chanting of the Our Father, you will turn to your neighbors, whoever they are, and shake hands. Normally you say, “Peace be with you,” but on this special holiday mass, you can instead offer a “Merry Christmas,” if the former phrase seems awkwardly medieval (which it always does, because it is).

8. Come packing coin, if you can.

Churches are free to all, but they have high operating costs, and many make miracles happen on tight budgets. In addition to offering a house of worship, they often run schools, soup kitchens, and much-needed community spaces. When the bread and wine are brought to the altar, a collection basket will also be passed across the pews. If you have a dollar or two that escaped the lure of Oprah’s Favorite Things, a small donation would be a perfect gift for the parish.

Everyone is eligible for blessings. Blessings are great.

9. When in doubt, sit it out.

For Catholics, receiving Communion is the most significant ritual of the mass, a sacrament through which they physically and spiritually receive Christ. This rite is only open to practicing Catholics who have fulfilled specific requirements. Non-Catholics and those of us “raised” Catholic should abstain from taking Communion as a sign of respect. You can remain seated as others leave their pews and line up, or, if you accidentally find yourself following the herd to the altar, simply cross your hands over your heart. Rather than offering you Communion, the priest will give you a blessing, for which everyone is eligible. Blessings are great.

10. Play the Quiet Game.

Perhaps it goes without saying that attending mass requires extended periods of respectful silence. Like two aging hens, my mother and I have grown progressively worse at keeping our clucking to a minimum. We can barely restrain ourselves from giggling at funny hats, egging on misbehaving children, and whining about how the incense makes us dizzy. If, like us, you can only stay quiet for a maximum of ten minutes, do so in the sacred time directly after Communion, when the priest sits and meditates. The service will soon end, and you can resume squawking in a more appropriate context.

11. Thank the hosts (of mass, not Jesus).

Larger churches and cathedrals often have singers and musicians who lead songs during Midnight Mass, sometimes including pianists, trumpeters, bell ringers, and choirs that have been practicing for months. In some parishes it is customary to applaud these hardworking songsters at the end of the service. As you file out of the church, you’ll probably also pass the priest in a receiving line. In the spirit of #7, he might greet you like you’re old friends, and it is polite to respond with a “Thank You, Father,” even if you don’t know exactly what you’re thankful for. And even if he’s not your dad.

12. Keep the party going.

Many parishes hold a reception following Midnight Mass, filling the church basement with cookies, juice, and a smell that only a church basement reception can emit. Chances are, you’ll be ready for a late-night snack. Like a much less holy communion, off-brand gingersnaps will really hit the spot and prepare you for the new day, Christmas Day!

Posted by Layla Bermeo
Layla is Mexican-American and Colombian, and speaks fluent grad student. She is working on her Ph.D. in art history and spends most of her time trying to achieve a “Kardashian-Librarian” fashion style. She hates weather, ice cream, and movies with too much plot. She loves Mexico, learning about American Indian culture, and really spicy vegetarian food.

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