There was always something about a church on Christmas Eve. The shoulders of Good Coats rustling against each other as whole families shuffled into pews or propped themselves into corners. The choir – be it an angelic gathering of harmonious children or a squawking gaggle of Deirdres and Diarmuids – rustled their pages and hummed their parts after weeks of rehearsals. Neighbours joked that the Lord himself would have agreed that moving midnight Mass to half-past eight was a good idea, rather than half the congregation coming in half-cut at 12 o’clock. Twentysomethings avoided the eyes of whoever they shifted last St Stephen’s Day and teenagers got the Mass giggles and the shaky shoulders when the altar girl did the “bong” at the wrong moment. The children would be wide-eyed in anticipation of Santa and at least one toddler would invade the altar to get a look at the one-eyed donkey in the crib. Father So-And-So, on his biggest night of the year, would welcome the flock and urge them to keep coming back even after the tree was down and the recycling bin returned to normal capacity.
I haven’t been to a Christmas Mass – either on Christmas Eve or the day itself – in several years. I went to Mass weekly until my mid-teens and then reduced my attendance to Convent of Mercy-mandated school services. I sang with the school choir at Christmas Eve Mass. Yes, I was a lickarse, but the church was also right beside the pub and you could sing your last chorus of O Holy Night and have a pint in your hand 10 minutes later. (It was the 1990s and you could go to the pub at 16. By 18, you were considered too old for the over-21 nightclub up the road.) The annual festive visit continued into my 20s and then for a few years after my dad died because it felt like maybe he was there with us. I kept it up for another few years after that to accompany my mother but, by the time the marriage equality and Repeal campaigns were fought and won, I was finished with the church, even on Christmas.
That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it, and that I don’t feel like a hypocrite for missing it. I absorbed the story of the nativity almost by osmosis from my earliest years. Fifteen years of education under a Catholic ethos. A young lifetime of weekly Masses amid confusion and ambivalence towards faith. A yearly pilgrimage to a packed church filled with excitement and wonder and singing and community which I returned to again and again even after all the other church influences had fallen away. Of course I miss it. Part of me is afraid that if I did show up on Christmas Eve I would start crying and wouldn’t be able to stop, and my shaky shoulders would set off the teenagers and the giggling. I’m not a religious person. I think the church as an organisation is packed to the rafters with hypocrites and ignorant bigots from the very top down to the pews. But I do I understand that religion and worship brings comfort to decent people and hope to the hopeless. I don’t begrudge them that.
It's difficult I'm sure to reconcile being a progressive, pro-equality, pro-choice person for 364 days of the year and then enter the House of the Lord to worship on the 365th. For many, attending their one annual Mass at Christmas is a case of feeling like a hypocrite if you go and feeling guilty if you don't. Without any wish to perpetuate the stereotype of the Irish Mammy beating the Good Coats onto people and herding them out of the door with the wooden spoon, anecdotal evidence collected from friends and via Twitter and Instagram polls would suggest that many non-regular Mass-goers still attend a Christmas service because their mother wants them to and it's easier just to go along. I suspect that among these people are a large number who enjoy the ritual and the sense of community and wonder.
Many probably like to hear the singing, enjoy the annual renditions of the festive bangers, even if it is just Deirdre and Diarmuid honking them out. Even people whose lifestyles and loves are openly opposed by the church will go because of obligation and I hope that if and when they choose to cut the tie with the Christmas Mass they find it liberating.
I don’t believe that fairweather Christmas Mass-goers do much to bolster the numbers or the chutzpah of the church any more than I believe fairweather Baptisms, Communions and Confirmations will continue in any great numbers once the sacraments are removed from the schools. If you attend Mass this Christmas, I hope you feel connection to your family, feel close to those you’ve lost or feel peace in meditation. If it pains you to have to go I hope you find the strength to say no. The first time is always the hardest. Happy Christmas.