Susan Klemond is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn., who writes news and feature articles for the Register, OSV Newsweekly and the Catholic Spirit, the diocesan paper for St. Paul-Minneapolis. She also has worked in marketing, editing and magazine production. She thinks about St. Peter’s exhortation to ‘always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.’ While some days it’s probably better that no one asks, she keeps working on it.
Midnight Mass can have a dreamlike quality for Catholics struggling to stay awake during the long liturgy that often follows a rush of preparations and merrymaking. Even as some parishes have moved the Mass to 10 p.m. to help bleary-eyed parishioners, it’s still near bedtime for many.
There is evidence that our ancestors may have found it easier to remain alert at Midnight Mass – because normally they were awake during those hours.
Before the introduction of artificial light during the industrial age, most people’s sleep was divided into two segments, according to Virginia Tech historian A. Roger Ekirch, who in his research found many historical references to this sleep pattern.
In the first segment people slept from dusk until about midnight. Toward the end of that period people could enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is connected with dreaming, Ekirch wrote in his article, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” published in American Historical Review.
For a couple of hours after that first sleep, people would lie awake in restfulness and contemplate those dreams, meditate, pray or do other things. After this wakeful period, they usually slept again until dawn.
Scripture passages show some Bible characters sleeping in segmented or bimodal patterns. This could explain why Peter, James and John found it so hard to stay awake while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. Some of Jesus’ parables also reflect the possibility of this sleep pattern, including the bridesmaids who are roused with the arrival of the bridegroom at midnight for wedding festivities.
Monastic practice of prayer during the night also point to the possibility of monks’ having had a pattern of segmented sleep.
If Christmas carols are any indication, Christ may have been born during a wakeful period. No carol points to this more than, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, where “the world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.”
In the First Noel, the angels approached “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;” possibly in a state of restful wakefulness.
The author of O Come, Divine Messiah! exclaims that “the world in silence waits the day when hope shall sing its triumph, and sadness flee away.”
And in Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, Christ was born, “when half spent was the night.”
The coming of the angels and their first glimpse of the Christ child must have made the shepherds wonder if they were dreaming, as they might have been in their first sleep segment. What a dream!
While the composer of Past Three O’Clock seems to place the time of Christ’s birth somewhat later, he may have been referring to the hour the first adorers arrived to see him.
But guests could have been welcomed through the night, at least as some French guests were, according to the carol Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella:
Who is that, knocking on the door?
Who is it, knocking like that?
Open up, we've arranged on a platter
Lovely cakes that we have brought here
Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!
Knock! Knock! Let's celebrate!
Adopting a segmented sleep pattern would be difficult today, especially for the majority of us who live in urban areas. But at least once a year on Christmas Eve, there is an opportunity to enter the restful wakefulness of our ancestors and contemplate at midnight the wonder of a Baby who was born during a quiet night to love and save us.