It's been a longtime tradition among many Catholics observing Christmas to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

For years, the majority of the Masses called Midnight Mass in Catholic churches and other Christian denominations actually took place right at midnight. Although many local Catholic churches still will present their Christmas Eve Mass at the stroke of midnight, there are many that now present the traditional Mass a bit earlier, sometimes at 10 or 11 p.m, or even 7 or 8 p.m.

The Rev. Martin Dobrzynski, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Schererville, and director of worship for the Diocese of Gary, will be presiding over Midnight Mass, or what's now called the Mass During the Night. St. Michael's Mass actually starts at Midnight but there are carols, lessons and other prayers that begin at 11 p.m.

Dobrzynski said the tradition of Midnight Mass revolves around the concept of  "keeping vigil for significant feast days." He said a vigil or a "watch" is observed for not only Christmas but the feasts of Pentecost, Easter and others.

"There are four particular Christmas masses offered," Dobrzynski said. "There's the Vigil Mass, at 4 or 5 p.m., the Mass During the Night (Midnight Mass), the Mass at Dawn and the Mass During the Day." Gospel readings during the Midnight Mass or Mass During the Night are different from what's heard at the other masses.

The priest said the manger story or the story of Jesus' birth is what's stressed during the traditional Midnight Masses while the Vigil masses deal with the genealogy of Jesus and the anticipation of his arrival.

Through the years the moving of Midnight Mass to earlier in the evening at various churches is often due to any number of reasons, including trying to make the Mass experience easier for families to attend, more convenient for the officiating clergy who often have multiple early masses to say on Christmas Day itself and even a safety factor so people aren't out or traveling too late.

Dobrzynski said there's a certain "romanticism associated with going to church in the middle of the night." He said he remembers attending Midnight Mass with his family when he was a child.

"We would have the Polish Wigilia vigil dinner and then we'd pack up and go to Midnight Mass," he said.

Dobrzynski said St. Michael Church has good attendance at Midnight Mass, which the church has been presenting since its original founding in 1872. Attendance at the Midnight Mass, he said, has decreased a bit through the years but there are still many devoted churchgoers who attend.

"For some, there's a certain devotion to staying up late and giving praise to God," the priest said. It's a conscious effort to make that sacrifice of staying up to welcome Christmas Day, he added.

For Maria Gomez, of Dyer, attending Midnight Mass was always a highlight of her family's Christmas celebrations.

"I love Midnight Mass," Gomez said. "I don't know if it was because of the hour, but it was always special."

Gomez, who grew up in South Chicago, said she remembers one particular Christmas Eve when her father drove her family to see the Christmas lights around the neighborhood. They were all dressed in casual clothes for the fun activity.

After they looked at the decorations, her father drove them to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and suggested they go to the Midnight Mass, which was just about to start.

"My mom was embarrassed because we weren't dressed for church," Gomez said, adding that was during the 1960s when people dressed nicely for church services.

Gomez said they were standing in the back and one of the priests told them to sit in one of the front seats for the Mass. Her mother told him they weren't dressed appropriately to go up to the front.

"I always remember the priest told her, 'Jesus doesn't see how you're dressed, he sees that you're here to worship him."

Dorothy Spencer, of Chicago's Southeast Side, said she always attended Midnight Mass as a child with her family.

"I always liked the part when they carry the baby Jesus in to the manger," she said. She said that Mass was always a significant part of their Christmas celebration.

Rosario Orozco, of Orland Park, who works as the business manager of St. Kevin Church in Church, said she's long enjoyed the "peacefulness" of Midnight Mass.

"It's nice to see the peaceful setting, the Christmas lights, the nativity set and seeing all the families gathered together," she said.

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Features reporter

Eloise writes about food and entertainment for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight children in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.