Sense and Nonsense: At a Christmas Eve Mass

A couple of years ago, I was to spend Christmas Eve with one of my nephews and his dear family. Though I will not specify where the following account took place, following St. Luke’s example, I will say that I was an eye-witness to the truth of what follows in this sober account. I write these lines so that future generations not be deprived of knowing what actually can happen in this world some two millennia after the Decree of Caesar Augustus went forth. No one, not even I, could ever have imagined what I am about to relate. Reality continues to surprise us by remaining both odder and funnier than fiction.

The family routine for Christmas Eve was as follows: my nephew’s local parish was to have an early Mass, about four or five in the evening, as I recall. While I was still in Washington, my niece-in-law had arranged that I concelebrate this Mass with the local priest who was to say Mass that day. I do not now recall if he was the pastor or the assistant. Since there are several children in my nephew’s family, this Christmas Eve Mass seemed to be most fitting. In the church, there would be a large Manger which the priest would bless. There would be singing by a children’s choir, in which I believe, was one of my little grandnieces.

We arrived at a bustling church about 15 minutes before Mass. I wended my way to the sacristy amidst all the hurried preparation for the Mass. As I had no assigned role in the ceremony, no one quite knew what to do with me except to reserve for me a chair. The other priest finally came and I introduced myself. Milling about were altar boys, altar girls, and altar adults. We were at last organized and processed out the side door to the back of the Church — we were a long file of Crucifix, candles, books, gifts I know not what all. The music was in full tune; children were running all over the church; the place was jammed. Carefully, we muscled our way through the crowd to a side altar and the elaborate Nativity scene. The priest blessed Joseph, Mary, and the Child in the crib. The animals and straw were appropriately scattered about amidst the Christmas trees and lights.

Finally, we got to the main altar to begin Mass. Evidently, I had no formal function in this Mass as all essential parts such as reading and distribution of Communion were assigned to the altar adults. I doggedly followed the usual formula for con-celebration. I was glad to be there. It came time to sit down for the Readings of the Epistles and Gospel (attention: I still say

Epistle, Gospel, and Mass). Only then, much to my astonishment, did I notice that there were three chairs — one for the principal celebrant, one for me, and a third already occupied by what appeared to my good eye as a very large, almost twice my size, stuffed bird, quite yellow.


The reader will be relieved to know I did not panic at this unexpectedly pagan scene on Christmas Eve, since by now I am shell-shocked enough to expect just about anything at a Holy Roman Catholic church service. Moreover, I recalled having another grandniece in Spokane who had a chair made in the same image as this very large stuffed bird that was listening to the Epistles and Gospel with me. After the altar adults had finished the Epistles, the priest went over to read the Gospel and give his homily. I was suddenly alone with Big Bird. Now I knew, and this was of considerable concern to me at the time, that my brother and my two nephews, not to mention my sister-in-law and my niece-in-law, were witnessing and watching with critical eyes this remarkable scene of Uncle Jim in chasuble and stole sitting beside Big Bird in yellow feathers, listening to the Christmas Eve homily. I still recollect sitting there in utter disbelief that a Holy Roman Catholic church could feature, along with myself, Big Bird as part of the Christmas Eve Mass. I knew that there would be no end to it when the family got to Christmas Eve dinner after Mass. I could already hear my nephew solemnly remarking to my brother how well Uncle Jim complemented Big Bird on the altar. Fortunately, no one had a camera to record this preposterous yet unforgettable scene.

Mind you, I had just disembarked a plane from Washington, D.C., after having read numerous term papers and handed in my students’ grades, looking forward to what I thought would be a normal Holy Roman Catholic Christmas Eve Mass in a local parish. I had not the slightest warning of what was to follow. I am still not sure whether my nephew deliberately did not alert me to test my mettle or if even he was surprised. My suspicion, though, tends to the former as he goes to that church every Sunday — surely he had experienced a similar event there before.

Customarily, I believe, the rubrics of the Church suggest that, when it comes time for distribution of Holy Communion, if another priest is present, he should assist. More times than not, in America, this rule is observed in the breaking of it. I was aware of that likelihood, so I went to Communion and dutifully sat back down next to my new clerical friend, Big Bird, while the altar adults distributed Communion. After that, I thought that Mass would soon end.

Wrong. Suddenly there was a swarming of the very little children. Either the priest or an altar adult announced that they were also celebrating their parish’s monthly birthday treat for the children. I also vaguely recall a stuffed Snoopy sitting around; he may have been Big Bird’s buddy. Needless to say, I was much surprised to learn that this birthday treat on Christmas Eve was a Hershey’s lollipop. In the same format as Holy Communion, they gave out Hershey lollipops to every child who came up to the sanctuary.

Before I could even realize what was about to happen, the priest handed me a big basket of said lollipops and assigned me a distribution place. So, on Christmas Eve I was celebrating children’s birthday night and giving out lollipops instead of Communion. The altar adults distributed the Communion, the priests the lollipops. This ceremony did not appear related to the Nativity Scene. No attempt was made to associate the gifts with the Christ Child. I think the children thought the lollipops came from Big Bird; they were smart enough to figure out that they did not come from Fr. Schall.

Several of the little children wanted to know if they could have more than one lollipop. Though I did not want to violate the principles of distributive justice in this delicate affair, there appeared to be a thousand little children cramming around Uncle Jim wanting their birthday treats. I was clearly out of my depth. Either every child under four in that parish had a birthday in December, or the parish operated on a principle of compassion and gave every child a lollipop on birthday Sunday with Big Bird no matter when his birthday. I handed out my last birthday treat Mass lollipop and returned to sit beside Big Bird in a Holy Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Eve. As I sat there waiting for the last Blessing, wondering if indeed there would be a last Blessing (I do not recall a Creed), all the altar girls, altar boys, and altar adults lined up for the exit procession. Looking out on this festive gathering, I fortunately did not catch my nephew’s eye. I knew by now he would be in total hysterics, and I, in turn, would begin to giggle uncontrollably at this incredible scene.

But in a more sober vein, I did wonder to myself if I should write to the local Bishop. As I mulled it over, I thought to myself, “No, it would do no good. If the local bishop does not know that lollipops are being given out as birthday treats on Christmas Eve, if he does not know that Big Bird occupies the seat of the Deacon at the Holy Mysteries, he must be so utterly incompetent that it would not be worth the effort. On the other hand,” I thought, “if the bishop does know these things are going on in his parishes, then the situation is even worse. Either way, in perfect dilemma form, he is incompetent or a fool.” However, not wanting to be uncharitable to the local ordinary on Christmas Eve, I dropped that line of musing.

Still, as I processed out of the sanctuary to the strains of “Adeste Fideles,” I wagered with myself. “Would you, following the logic of your horserace-betting brother, who was also present in his son’s Holy Roman Catholic church, bet that the bishop did or did not know about the lollipops and Big Bird as deacon for Christmas Eve Mass?” You will not be surprised to know that, on the whole, I bet that he did know.


After Mass, I chatted, still unbelieving, with the altar adults, the parishioners, the children, and, finally, with my nephew. He said to me, laughing, but with what I thought to be a touching sense of responsibility for the mental health of his aging uncle, “I’m sorry, Uncle Jim, I knew it would be bad.” And then, he added, with his arm on my shoulder, “You really looked good up there with Big Bird.” At least, he did not complain that I had not saved him a lollipop.

I recount this tale, this true tale, to my Holy Roman Catholic friends at this Christmastide to give them comfort and consolation. Surely this sort of stuff is madness. No doubt, there is a place for Big Bird and Hershey lollipops, even at Christmas time. Surely, all that we need is the Crib, the Manger, the Christmas stories, the music, the lovely and moving account of the Birth of the Lord as we read it in the Gospels. It seemed sad to me to see, on Christmas Eve, a parish confused by symbols that could in no way match the true Christmas drama of our tradition. It’s true that we have incorporated secular symbols into our religious observance: the Christmas tree is from the pagan Germans, the Yule log from the English, and “White Christmas” from the Americans. Nevertheless, at least once a year let’s get straight what is the true reason for Christmas — the Birth of Our Lord. Only when we get it straight can Christmas really move our souls.

I will conclude by citing the new Catechism: “The Word became flesh so that we might know God’s love: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 Jn 4:9). ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” On 3:16) (#458).

When we walk out of Christmas Eve Mass with our dear families, hopefully we have not been distracted by Big Bird on the Holy Altar, or our children by free birthday Hershey lollipops after Communion, or even by Uncle Jim sitting there midst it all. This is what should stick in the depth of our souls — this only Son sent into the world that we should have eternal life. This is what our priests and bishops should be sure we understand and realize on this Holy Night. And if they persist in confusing us with Big Birds and lollipops, we still have the Catechism and the accounts of Luke and Matthew.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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