More churches schedule earlier Christmas Eve services

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

If this is the most wonderful time of the year, then tonight must be the most wonderful night.

And those who stay up the latest, celebrating Christmas in church at midnight, say that's the most wonderful of all.

"It's the first minute of the birthday of Christ, and I think it's something special to celebrate that at midnight," said Mike Scherer of Kechi.

His parents took him to midnight Mass every year when he was growing up, and he's continued the same tradition with his children.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of the dear Savior's birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Modern church practice has shifted from attending services on Christmas Day — that's become family time — and at midnight — that's just too late when you have little children. But those who stay up say something precious is lost whenever convenience takes precedence.

"In the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Christmas we've missed the whole reason for Christmas," said Jeanne Heiman of Wichita. Midnight Mass is something she'd miss only, say, on a blizzardy night like last Christmas Eve.

"Midnight Mass to me is the culmination of all the material and spiritual preparation for Christmas,'' she said. "For me the midnight Mass is kind of the apex of the season and everything flows from that — the family and friends and gifts and everything.

"Christmas Mass is the reiteration of the whole reason Christ came to earth. He came but he's still with us and he's going to come again — that's kind of all wrapped up in that midnight Mass."

Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin, mother and child

Holy infant, so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Take a look at the TV listings and you'll see that the three major local networks all will be televising Christmas church services tonight, not on Christmas Day.

Michael Gardner, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, said his church does not have a Christmas Day service. The church's 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service will be televised on KAKE, Ch. 10, tonight for the seventh year in a row.

"We've noticed there are services that are offered earlier and not as many late services" on Christmas Eve, Gardner said. But for his church, "it's a tradition so that at midnight we'll light the candles and sing 'Silent Night.' That's... full of tradition and memories and meaning."

But it's also a tradition that has been waning. In recent years, midnight Mass has declined in popularity for Catholics, with earlier vigil Masses on Christmas Eve the most well-attended.

"I think that the way our culture is, it's the closest thing to midnight that folks can go to," said the Rev. Sherman Orr, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Bel Aire. The 7 p.m. vigil Mass there is the one that's packed to overflowing.

"No one wants to stay up too late," Orr said, "so they go to the vigil Mass and then can get back home and have a big meal and open presents."

The one Christmas Day Mass at the church, at 10 a.m., won't be even half full, he said. That has become family time, and also a day to travel.

But he thinks midnight Mass is rarefied air for those who stay up for it. About half of Wichita's Catholic churches will have Mass at midnight tonight, including a very traditional one, in Latin, at St. Anthony's downtown.

"There's so very few times of the year the Church has a specific time and prayers and readings just for the midnight Mass," Orr said.

He remembers napping as a child before being awoken to go to midnight Mass, then coming home to Irish coffee.

"I'll remember that to my dying day," Orr said. "We don't have a heavy attendance by kids at midnight Mass, but I think the ones who go really look forward to it.

"Keeping that kind of ritual alive is very important."

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed

The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head

The stars in the sky look down where he lay

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Mike Scherer's son, Andrew, is 17 years old and will play trombone tonight at the midnight Mass at Resurrection church. The addition of brass to the usual musical instruments elevates that Mass for him. But memories do, too.

"When we first moved here and went to midnight Mass, I was chosen to carry the baby Jesus up in the procession. We have a large nativity,'' he said. "I was in first grade then."

Andrew's sister, Christina, is 15 and used to equate midnight Mass with being able to stay up late as a little kid.

"Now to me it's more of a tradition," she said. "We do it because we love doing it. It feels a lot more like Christmas."

It came upon the midnight clear

That glorious song of old

From angels bending near the earth

To touch their harps of gold.

"Peace on the earth, good will to men

"From heaven's all-gracious King."

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear the angels sing.

Christmas Eve also always brings new faces to church.

"I see people I never see," Orr said. "They will be there at 11 in the evening and they have their place staked out and they listen to the carols."

David Dondlinger attends all three Christmas Masses at Resurrection, directing the choirs. He said he never strays far from traditional carols because it's the most beloved music of all, and the music people sing best.

"It always seems more solemn" at midnight, he said. "The fact that people have stayed up that late to attend a service gives it a feeling of anticipation and expectation and importance."