Festivities permit monks to have two-hour lie-in until 5.45 on Christmas morning


On Christmas Day the monks of Mount Melleray Abbey will rise at 5.45 a.m. to begin another day of work, worship and study.

It's one of only two days in the year - the other being Easter Sunday - when such a late start is permitted; the normal rising time is 3.45 a.m.

Christmas is different because of the annual midnight Mass, which attracts the largest congregation of the year to the community's church and also, the monks freely admit, plays havoc with their sleeping patterns.

"Some of the guys on Christmas Day will have a bit of a head on them, and it's not from drink," says the abbot of the 166-year-old Cistercian community, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald.

For the monks, unlike others in the late 20th century world, Christmas is still very much a religious event, but it does bring an air of conventional celebration with it, even for them. "There is a difference in the community at Christmas, very much," says Father Eamon. "There's a more festive kind of atmosphere and people are generally lighter and freer and friendlier."

Although not strictly vegetarian, the monks don't really eat meat, but they make an exception for Christmas Day. "Our diet is basically simple and we don't eat meat unless we're ill," the Abbot explains. "But for the past 15 years or so we've broken out on Christmas Day and we go for the turkey and ham."

That's just one manifestation of a less austere regime than formerly applied at Mount Melleray, which is four miles from Cappoquin, Co Waterford.

The rector of the monastery, Father Columban, who entered Mount Melleray in 1949, took "quite a time" to get used to the strict rule of silence which then existed. "There were about two dozen other novices at the time. I was living with them for two years and I never spoke a word to them," he says. Nowadays the monks regard the early morning as a time of silence, given over in large part to contemplation and prayer. Father Columban believes some of the changes have been "very good", but not all the monks agree. Father Ben, who entered in 1953 after returning from missionary work in Africa, prefers the "ancient monastic approach".

When he entered Mount Melleray the monks did not speak to each other at all, using signs instead to communicate. "It was an effort to protect the silence and cultivate an atmosphere of communion with God. I liked that," he says.

"For me there is nothing to compare with being able to communicate with the infinite, almighty God who deigns to accept our communication with him, which is prayer," he says with passion.

Although newspapers are now freely available in the monastery, Father Ben believes they would be a distraction and doesn't read them. For others, however, the changes have not quite come quickly enough. Brother Edmund, who runs the monastery farm - Mount Melleray has 960 acres, 300 of which are woodland - looks forward to a day when, he hopes, viewing sport on TV will be allowed.

Father Eamon is "resisting pressure" for this change, because "the idea is to provide an environment where we can be recollected, thoughtful and prayerful. TV is obviously very stimulating and I think sport is addictive . . . I'm not against sport as such but I don't think it helps in our life." Brother Edmund, a Waterford man and keen hurling supporter, disagrees with the abbot's stance. If something is good for you in your youth, he believes, it is worth pursuing in later life too. "I think if a lad doesn't play some sport you don't really know what he's made of. You find out a man's temperament, what colour he is if you like, through sport." Perhaps Brother Edmund will raise the matter with the abbot over Christmas dinner, as this is the only time of the year that the monks mix meal time with conversation. Sitting side by side on one side of the table only, they normally take their meals in silence. The regular routine changes from 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when the monks have their evening prayers, Vespers, earlier than usual and retire at about 6 p.m., instead of 8.30 as normal. They get up again at 10.10 p.m. for Vigils at 10.25, which on other days take place at 4 a.m.

Explaining why effectively they get up in the middle of the night, Father Eamon says the monastic life is one of waiting for the return of the Lord. "The office of vigil kind of symbolises that . . . keep awake, stay watching, the Lord is coming. The Advent time of the year, preparing for Christmas, is very monastic in that sense." After Vigils, there's a 45-minute break before midnight Mass and when that's over the monks retire again to catch whatever sleep they can before Christmas Day resumes with Lauds - or songs of praise - at 6 a.m., with Vigils having already taken place the previous night.

For some, like Brother Edmund, the routine of the day is little different from any other: the 165 cows have to be milked at 6.30 a.m. just as on any other day.

Others do get some extra leisure time on the 25th - and for a few days following. The monks have time to talk after dinner and those who are interested will watch a film. Just like in any household, not everyone will agree on what video to watch.

"The problem is how to get something that's monastic and acceptable," Father Eamon says, before adding with a smile: "and yet entertaining . . . " Films which the monks have watched in recent years include Dances with Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, Babette's Feast and Sense and Sensibility. A minority of the monks will also have a drink - a glass of wine or beer - with their meal, and afterwards, says Father Eamon, "mainly the younger set, sit around and have a cup of coffee and maybe some cheese".

The Abbot himself prefers a stroll in the Knockmealdown Mountains, as does Brother Denis Luke.

So what can they possibly think of the "conventional" Christmas spent by the rest of us, the mad rush to the shops, advertising campaigns starting in October, young carol singers singing Oasis hits on Dublin's Grafton Street instead of Silent Night, sales that now start before not after Christmas, and an eating and drinking binge that goes on for days?

Father Eamon refuses to be judgmental. "It's true that Christmas has been commercialised, but I think it is a time when people show concern for others too . . . some of it is rat-race stuff, but a lot of it is about care for one's kids, relatives and so on and expressing feelings of warmth and friendship."

From a peak of about 150 in the 1940s and 1950s, Mount Melleray now has just 43 monks, and, with an average age of 69, might appear to have a bleak future. But Father Eamon refuses to be pessimistic: "I would think there will always be a place for monasticism in the life of the church . . . but we might have to get small before we start growing again."