ASK FATHER: Traditional Eucharistic fast from midnight before Christmas Midnight Mass?

From a reader…


A few year’s ago, I started trying to observe the older eucharistic fasting discipline of taking no food or water from midnight until the reception of Holy Communion the next day.

I am curious to know how this discipline was applied to Midnight Mass.

I know that Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of fasting, but the multitude of gastronomic traditions for this day would seem to indicate that a total fast from food was not observed in most Catholic cultures.

Does this mean that the relevant midnight for the Midnight Mass Eucharistic fast is the midnight that occurs simultaneous with the start of the Mass? Or, are these foods vestiges of a time of infrequent communion?

It think there is a little of both going on there, with traditional foods of Christmas Eve – like sette pesci – and the Eucharistic fast for Midnight Mass, starting at … well.. midnight.

Some background.

St Pope X promoted frequent Communion, but at the time, the Eucharist fast required was from midnight, abstinence from all food and drink.  In 1953 Pope Pius XII issued an Apostolic Constitution Christus Dominus which allowed water.  In 1957 Pius with the Motu Proprio Sacram communionem reduced to fast from food and drink to three hours before reception of Communion.  In 1964 Pope Paul VI reduced the fast from food and drink to one hour before Communion.  In 1973 Paul dispensed the sick and their caregivers from even the one hour Eucharistic fast.  Immensae caritatis said that the infirm or elderly should fast for at least 15 minutes.  That’s now mitigated, too.

On this trajectory, one might expect someone like Francis, who seems to allow divorced and remarried adulterers to receive Communion, to issue a decree that would require people to eat up to the moment of Communion.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law – now in force – says:

can. 919 §1. A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.

§2. A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day can take something before the second or third celebration even if there is less than one hour between them.

§3. The elderly, the infirm, and those who care for them can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.

In any event, the older, traditional Eucharistic fast before reception of Communion (not attendance at Mass) was from midnight onward, no food or water.  That is not so rough when Mass is early in the morning.   It was tough on the priests who had later Masses, such as at noon.   Remember that the old practice for the timing of celebration of Mass was that Mass should not begin earlier than one hour before first light (not the same as dawn) and not later than one hour after noon (1917 CIC c. 821 §1: “Missae celebrandae initium ne fiat citius quam una hora ante auroram vel serius quam una hora post meridiem.”).  However, there was an exception for the 1st Mass of Christmas: “§2. In nocte Nativitatis Domini inchoari media nocte potest sola Missa conventualis vel paroecialis, non autem alia sine apostolico indulto.”

But the old “black” fast from midnight before the 1st Mass of Christmas at midnight, would mean that you couldn’t eat, essentially, anything for the whole day.  Right?

Nope.   I haven’t found anything to the contrary, so this is how I read the situation on Christmas Eve.  The fast from midnight onward, meant that you fast from midnight onward until Communion.    Hence, you could eat pretty much right up to the last tick, 2359h 59s.  Once midnight arrived, you couldn’t eat anything… during Mass… until Communion.   No bringing in that flask and having a nip during the sermon.  No bringing in a sack of White Castle sliders and snacking during the Canon.

As matter of fact, there was once a bit of a problem inebriation at Midnight Mass.

Not recommended… unless perhaps the celebrant is….

… no, not even then.

Meanwhile, a shot of a Midnight Mass from a 1944 noir film Christmas Holiday with Deanna Durbin, who has something of a conversion during the Mass.  At the end of the clip, she says something pertinent to this post.

Holy Mass of the Ages, as filmed by Hollywood in 1944 from Moose Malloy on Vimeo.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Sieber says:

    St Vibiana’s Cathedral…..sold by Crdl. Mahoney. Now a party venue for the Hollywood crowd.
    Please note that when giving the blessing before communion the three priests rotate fully and face the congregation. When there was a single celebrant one would rotate, making a slight step towards the gospel side, with his back to the gospel book, and deliver the blessing. ( in cornu evangelium).
    Priests who learn the rubrics today are evidently taught to make a quarter turn to the right and deliver the blessing to whatever is there i.e. a server, no one, a blank wall or whatever. This must be traceable to particular school of thought which is training these good men. It makes no sense. Help!

    [Don’t make the assumption that things are the same everywhere.]

  2. jhogan says:

    The TLM, the reason Hollywood liked the Catholic Church back in the day. Now it is a “why bother?” Partly because the NO is not as film-worthy, but partly because Hollywood lost its way. Movies and television used have a moral or lesson to them.

  3. Kathleen10 says:

    It’s heartbreaking to look at that and confront what the men of our church took away from us.
    No one could look at that and say we are better off now.
    How foolish.

  4. Joe in Canada says:

    down-town parishes in bigger cities would have Sunday Mass starting at 1 am for partiers who could fast until Mass, then go back to the parties after Mass.

  5. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    I have heard of some liturgists who recommended a four hour fast before Christmas Midnight Mass (before the three hour fast was invented by Pius XII), but have never found proof of this (maybe someone else has?). There was a four hour fast in, for instance, the U.K., during World War II when Midnight Mass was temporarily allowed to be said on Christmas Eve.

  6. APX says:

    That pronunciation of Kyrie eleision! I’ve never heard the “ee” pronounced as “eye” before.

  7. WmHesch says:

    Interestingly, the restoration of the 1st Mass of Christmas to midnight arose out of the very popular New Years Day Masses at midnight in 1899/1900 and 1900/1901. Leo XIII had asked the entire Catholic world to welcome the 20th Century with midnight Mass in homage to our Lord “Redemptor Mundi”

    In 1902, Leo XIII allowed the faithful to communicate at midnight Christmas Mass (in those places where the time was approved by the Ordinary).

    Before the 20th century, “midnight Mass” of Christmas was celebrated about 6am.

  8. Imrahil says:

    As a matter of fact, when Pope Ven. Pius XII introduced the three-hour fasts, there were comments around, that, yes, w.r.t. Midnight Masses (Christmas, the recently introduced Easter Vigil Midnight Mass and perhaps some other indulted occasions*) the discipline had been strictened. They have been lessened since, but still, the one hour is theoretically still a rule to follow in addition to “from the beginning of Mass”.

    [*I don’t know if it was then already the practice what some traditional communities are now doing later… when they have a convention on, say, a pilgrimage site, some speeches, catechesis, etc., over the weekend, they will have a midnight Mass on the Sunday which is of the Sunday, and then a votive Mass according to the given occasion on Sunday morning.]

  9. mibethda says:

    Actually, if the Confiteor is recited today before the Communion of the people, and absolution given by the Celebrant (despite #503 of the Code of Rubrics and the decree, Rubricarum instructum, given motu proprio by Pope St. John XXIII on July 25, 1960), then the Celebrant is acting in accordance with the long standing proper practice in making only a partial turn to the right rather than a turn to face the full congregation. see, for example the Baltimore Ceremonial (mandated by all three plenary councils of Baltimore – 1852, 1866 and 1884 – to be used in all parishes in the United States) which states:
    Meanwhile the server says the Confiteor; after which the priest turns to the right, and, facing the
    corner of the Epistle, says, in a loud voice, Misereatur vestri (not tui, although there may be only
    one communicant). The server having answered Amen, he says Indulgentiam, etc. …
    (9th Edition, 1926, Mulholland rev., paraphrasing the rubrics of the R.S.)
    See also, O’Connell and Schmitz, The Book of Ceremonies, (Rev’d. 1956) p.111, which instructs that the Celebrant, after turning to his right, should be “facing only halfway toward the people”
    The reason for the Celebrant’s not turning 180 degrees to face the Congregation is that the ciborium (or the paten) is then open on the corporal, containing the Sacred Hosts. The Celebrant must take care that he not so fully rotate as to turn his back on the Blessed Sacrament when it is so exposed. Thus, even when Communion is administered from the Altar outside of Mass and the ciborium has been opened and placed on the corporal, the Rituale Romanum instructs (Titulus V, Caput 2) :
    Tum Sacerdos iterum genuflectit et, manibus iunctis ante pectus vertit se ad populum
    (advertens ne terga vertat Sacramento), et in cornu Evangelii dicit:
    The full turn shown in the movie would not have been quite correct in the pre VII Mass.
    Sorry for tripping down the rabbit hole….

  10. Sportsfan says:

    “As matter of fact, there was once a bit of a problem inebriation at Midnight Mass.”

    We stick to the old traditions at my parish.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Before the 20th century, “midnight Mass” of Christmas was celebrated about 6am.


    I wonder, though. Aren’t some traditions older than the 20th century?

    The song Silent Night was first sung, if sources can be trusted, on 24th December 1818 following the Christmette. The word “Christmette” now means the Christmas Midnight Mass. It might of course, have, then, meant Matins (which is the origin of the word) which frequently used to be anticipated to the preceding day.

    There is a tradition to eat a “Matins soup” or “Matins sausages” after returning from Mass. In the first half of the 20th century, this certainly did exist. Was it an invention of no earlier? I wonder. Of course, then the Fast of Christmas Vigil ended; but such an elaborate soup, etc., for merely the end of a fast-day when those who wanted to Communicate (and Christmas was one of the days most practicing Catholics will have Communicated at all times) would still have to keep the Eucharistic Fast? I rather doubt it.

  12. Sieber says:

    I am much impressed with mibethda’s research. Perhaps it is a question of the practical over the prescribed.. I attended and served Mass throughout the 40s and 50s in Los Angeles. I have traveled throughout the USA & Europe during the reign of the vetus ordo. During that time I never noticed the absolution given as described until the liberation of vetus ordo celebrated by priests who never celebrated it before its abandonment. In my experience, the celebrant turned his back to the Gospel side of the altar with his back in line with the book which is set at a 45 degree angle on the altar. The priest also facing at the same 45 + degree angle. To assure that the Sacred Species were in no way dishonored he would often place his hand by them as he rotated to the right and took a step back towards the gospel side. His angle then would be diagonally facing the people. Betcha when the Mass was resurrected the teachers who had never experienced the Mass in its heyday relied on the books & practical experience hasn’t caught up! BTW the Cathedral for better or worse was spelled with a V. PAX

  13. Dear mibethda,
    Interesting. Thanks so much. That is how I teach my students in the Dominican Rite Practicum at our House of Studies in Oakland CA to do the Communion Confiteor, just a half-turn. In the Western Province it has been customary since the 1960s to do the Communion Confiteor at Sung Dominican Rite Masses, esp. when there is a friars’ Communion with prostrations etc. Such a Communion may be seen here: The friars’ Communion starts at 59:30.

  14. Here’s an absolution after the Second Confiteor:

  15. WVC says:

    Now I have to find this movie. With a young Gene Kelly, to boot!

    Regarding the 2nd Confiteor, they were still doing it at all of the Masses as Old St. Mary’s in D.C. when I was a regular up to about 6 or 7 years ago (the claim, which I have no reason to doubt, was that they had some sort of indult to offer Mass that way because they were offering the Extraordinary Form long before JPII’s indult let alone Benedict’s Motu Proprio). The priests, including some very distinguished folks like Msgr. Wadsworth, would always offer absolution first to the altar boys on their right but then pivot the rest of the way to extend it to the parishioners in the pew (sometimes by means of extending the right arm of the Sign of the Cross all the way around until they were at the 180 mark, always with a step so as not to turn their back directly to Our Lord in the Eucharist).

  16. Sounded like at the second Confiteor they skipped from “ideo precor beatam Mariam semper virginem” straight to “omnes sanctos,” omitting St Michael, John the Baptist, etc. Is this just a “Hollywood cut,” or was there a liturgical use of the Confiteor in the Roman Rite that cut the saints from the back half of the prayer?

  17. Grant M says:

    Vimeo is blocked in my region. YouTube seems to have the complete movie, but this time the copyright owner has blocked it in my region. I gotta get me a VPN so I can see this wonderful movie with its wonderful Midnight Mass that The Man doesn’t want me to see. Otherwise I’ll never know what Deanna said.

  18. mibethda says:

    Perhaps you mean that they were claiming a right based on custom (rather than an indult). Such a custom or indult might have to contend with provision 3) of Rubricarum instructum:
    3) Item statuta, privilegia, indulta et consuetudines cuiuscumque generis, etiam saecularia et immemorabilia, immo specialissima atque individua mentione digna, quae his rubricis obstant, revocacantur.
    The entire motu proprio should be one of the prefatory items in any 1962 Missal by its own terms

  19. ocsousn says:

    To change the subject slightly, I note in the video that the faithful approach Holy Communion helter skelter and not pew by pew, thus respecting the privacy those who can not communicate. They started coming forward after the priest’s Domine, non sum dignus and those standing in the isles and behind those at the communion rail kneel on the floor for the Ecce, Agnus Dei and people’s Domine, non sum dignus. This is how I recall it was done in my parish in the 1950’s and it meant that the communion rail was full when the priest(s) arrived with the Blessed Sacrament and refilled quickly. Communion was reverent but expeditious. These days at the EF folks only begin to come forward as the priest approaches the altar rail and fill empty slots at a more leisurely pace.

  20. Fr. Kelly says:

    ocsousn: I recall my mother describing Communion this way, especially in Masses later in the morning wen the priest might not expect people to come because of the fast.

    She always said, you had to move up to the rail so that when the priest turned and looked out, he would see you coming otherwse he might just go on with the Mass if he did not see people coming for Communion.

  21. WVC says:

    @mibethda – Not knowing the details, I cannot say. I can only say that when I asked one of the priests in residence there who was offering the Mass (because the second confiteor is not in the rubrics anymore, and I wanted to know what reason was for this parish to still do it – say the black, do the red should apply to Traditionalists as well as Novus Ordo Catholics, I reckon), I was told that they had specific permission and that it was in writing. The priest was a young, very serious man who has gone on to teach at a seminary, and I have no reason to doubt him. And others, like Msgr. Wadsworth, who was (perhaps still is) the head of the Commission for the English Language in the liturgy (the group responsible for correcting the terrible Novus Ordo translation) also offered the 2nd confiteor when offering Mass at Old St. Mary’s.

    It’s the only place in the many places I’ve attended the Latin Mass that regularly offers the 2nd confiteor. It’s a lovely church, and anyone visiting in D.C. should certainly stop in to visit. There are many Latin Masses offered there during the March for Life.

  22. Sieber says:

    Yep, Fr. Z nailed it in his video. Just the way I remember it.

    Thank you Father.

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