The first Christmas my wife and I were together (1993), Melissa wanted to attend a Roman Catholic Christmas midnight mass, a longstanding wish of hers. I’d never attended a midnight mass either, and so we did: late on the evening of December 24th, we and some friends attended a lovely mass at St. Francis of Assisi parish, in Provo, where I found singing the Christmas hymns (during communion and the recessional) to be more fulfilling than I think I ever had previously. By the next morning, Melissa and I decided that we needed to attend a church service every Christmas Eve. That we have done every year since, bringing our children along as they’ve been born and have grown. We’ve attended midnight masses since then, but have mostly opted for Protestant services earlier in the evening: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Presbyterian. We’ve come to realize that many Protestant denominations have more-or-less formalized certain Christmas Eve services, with the lighting of candles (advent or otherwise) and regular lessons, carols, anthems, prayers and blessings. We don’t take communion (our covenant is elsewhere, after all), but we contribute and participate to the fullest (or, at least, as much as our kids allow us: some years have been better than others). Generally speaking, we’ve yet to attend one Christmas Eve service which hasn’t been rewarding, and yet to hear one sermon that wasn’t deeply truthful and good, though I do think we’ve liked Methodist services best overall.
When we’ve explained our family Christmas Eve tradition to other Mormons, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a fair amount of support and sympathy; I’ve heard versions of the “I wish our ward/our stake/the church did/would do something at Christmastime” complaint more times than I can count. (There’s the Christmas Devotional broadcast, of course, but except for those lucky enough to be able attend and to walk around Temple Square in person, it’s not a particularly immediate experience.) But we’ve also received more than our fair share of criticial comments. These usually breakdown into two categories: what are you doing worshipping at another church, and why do you feel a need to go to church on Christmas Eve?
My answers to those comments are tied together: Melissa and I feel a need to worship on Christmas Eve, and our church, unfortunately, does not provide that opportunity. What do we mean by worship? Not simply remembering the “reason for the season”; any reading of Luke 2 before hitting the sack could accomplish that. No, we mean gathering together in His name. And not just as family or extended family either: Melissa and I both grew up in families where our folks and siblings would gather in living rooms on Christmas Eve, to eat and sing songs and swap stories and watch the little kids put on a nativity play and so forth. That’s good, but it’s not good enough: what is needed is something congregational, something that puts you before God and beside your fellow man.
The simple answer as to why the Mormon church does not do so at Christmastime is that we are, at least at present, in practice if not in theology, one of those typically American, disestablished, free Protestant churches; we have our meetings on Sunday, we keep the commandments on our own, and that’s enough for us. The idea of being tied to a calendar of holy days, of being implicated in a tradition of not just memory but performance, is as foreign to American Mormonism as it is to any evangelical Christian church you could name. The week of Christmas you will, of course, have some sort of Christmas-themed service on Sunday, with the usual hymns and maybe a program too (it would be pointless not to), but to actually meet to praise God on the day (or the night) itself–that’s too “high church” for us. (Of the Protestant services I mentioned above, obviously not all of them take the traditional Christian calendar and the idea of special services on holy days with equal seriousness–but all recognize that on Christmas Eve at least, church doors should be opened, and something should be offered to the supplicant.)
Yes, we are to remember our baptismal covenants always, and once a week on Sunday is as good and as sufficient a day to renew it as any other. But still: some days are special; some days give us a greater sense of God than others. And if you acknowledge that specialness, it seems to me an occasion for worship. Everyone’s Christmas will be different, I realize, and not everyone shares my affection for being attached to holidays. But if you feel in need of something to ground your seasonal celebrations, I couldn’t recommend more strongly reconnecting (if only for one night) with the high church tradition, and regularly attending Christmas Eve services. It’ll do you good. (For some far less spiritual Christmas recommendations of mine, see here and here and here.)
I’ve wondered: what if I’m a bishop or branch president someday, what will I do then? Part of me thinks I’d, of course, continue going to Christmas Eve services with my family; no need to change doing something we’ve enjoyed so much. But part of me wonders if I’d have the guts to do what I think we Mormons ought to do: spend less time in meetings, and more time in praise. Maybe I’d just quietly pass the word that I’d be in chapel on Christmas Eve; I’d arrange for some music, perhaps, and prepare a short sermon, or ask someone else to do the same. I wonder if it would work? And I wonder if any other ward somewhere might be doing this already? If so, good for them.