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Ask the clergy: Christmas Eve tradition

Christmas Eve Mass and "watch" services are a special part of the holidays. A watch service is a symbolic way of waiting, or "watching," for the birth of Christ. Since it isn't known what time Christ was born, many choose to celebrate midnight as the time of his birth. These special services usually involve singing, retelling of the story of his birth and fellowship afterward. Our clergy discuss the significance of their individual Christmas Eve services.

Father Thomas A. Cardone, S.M., Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale:

Each year, Kellenberg and other Catholic schools on Long Island host a Christmas Eve Mass for students, their families and alumni.

We call it a Midnight Mass, and it signifies the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25. We're inviting people into the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus from a god to a man.

Most churches will have a carol service a half-hour before the service. We have a carol service interspersed with Scriptures. One of our younger students places baby Jesus in the manger at the beginning of the Mass.

The Mass begins with an entrance procession that can include choir members, altar servers and ministers who are going to participate. The service also includes incense, which is a symbol of our prayers going up to God.

One of the things about Catholicism is that it appeals to the five senses. Bells, music, incense are among the ways the service appeals to all the senses. This service is so significant because you come at midnight and it is dark, similar to what Mary and Joseph would have experienced in Bethlehem. For Catholics, Christmas beings at midnight, so it is significant that we are there at that exact moment.

Msgr. James McDonald, pastor, Church of Saint Aidan, Williston Park:

Generally speaking, the vigil Mass of Christmas is celebrated anytime between 4 p.m. and midnight, although many congregations celebrate around 10 p.m.

There is no knowledge of when Christ was born -- not the time of day or specific year. Catholics think of the service as the beginning of Christmas, and the first thing we do to honor the birth of Christ. Many parishes have the service at 10 or 11 p.m., but we have it at midnight. Ours includes a procession and the blessing of the crib. It also includes hymns and the use of incense.

There are many symbolic aspects of the service. For example, the incense signifies our prayers going up to God. The Mass celebrates the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his becoming physically present. Incense was one of the things the wise men brought as gifts to the baby Jesus. There is a blessing of the crèche, the manger scene. Many people go to confession right before Mass. I usually spend about five hours in the confessional before the Mass, hearing confessions. People want to be spiritually prepared for the Mass.

Afterward, some people go to the manger and pray.

The Rev. Tom Schacher, pastor, First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton:

The Christmas Eve midnight worship service is a celebration of the birth of Christ and all he means to us. He brought salvation to all humanity. We celebrate at 11 p.m. with extra joy because, when we go out after the service, it is Christmas Day.

There is something special about the peace and quiet of that time. It is as if this is the world that he wants to give us, one without pain, suffering, wars and strife. This story connects with my childhood, when my family would attend midnight service.

The service is a coming together of brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate the birth of our lord and savior. We sing carols that proclaim Christ is born that day.

The service starts with carols, then we offer prayers. We read the Scriptures of the Christmas story. We have a creche that grows during the advent season. It starts with a stable and we add animals, the shepherds and finally Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus.

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