Midnight Mass, a tradition especially popular for Catholics, is under threat, a survey in the United Kingdom finds with disturbance from drunks and clerical shortages cited as some reasons.
A survey carried out by UK-based weekly Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, in England and Wales found that Midnight Mass is "on its way to becoming a thing of the past."
Priests at more than 50 deaneries, groups of parishes across England and Wales, contacted during December said there has been a decline in the number of churches offering a Mass to usher in Christmas Day at midnight.
Father Michael Marsden, parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, at Hessle in the Middlesbrough diocese of northeastern England, said the midnight service in his parish would be the only one in the deanery.
"Going to Midnight Mass at Christmas used to be one of the hallmarks of being a Catholic; it is sad if that is changing," he said.
In some pastoral areas the midnight service will not be offered at all, while in many the first Mass of the nativity, celebrating the birth of Jesus, is now scheduled for as early as 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Ageing congregations along with a declining number of priests have also encouraged the holding of earlier Masses.
Father Mark Minihane. an Augustinian friar in the London area of Westminster, blogged in The Tablet, "The priest shortage is beginning to bite. The Dominicans are to leave four of their churches in Ireland. Similar things are happening in England, Scotland and Wales.
"Parishes are having to merge and I know of elderly priests with three and even four parishes, and one priest with five churches. Two priests in combined parishes are saying 10 Masses between them on the weekend, one saying four on Sunday."
Rev. David Hogan, parish priest of St. Bernadette's, in Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough in northeast England, estimated that fewer than 25 percent of parishes now offer Midnight Mass.
"Last time we had it, we ended up with a drunk trying to get the doors off the church," he said. "So we've made the decision not to have Mass when people are pouring out of the pubs sloshed."
Hogan said the deline goes back to the 1970s and the introduction of an evening vigil Mass to fulfil the Sunday or Holyday obligation.
"There has never been any significance in celebrating Mass at midnight at Christmas beyond the fact that it used to be the first opportunity there was to have it," he added.
Some parishes told of "bizarre interruptions" to Midnight Mass.
Canon Alan Sheridan, of St George's, in York, told The Tablet the service was moved to 8 p.m. after a streaker caused havoc running naked through the church.
"We are on the main drag into town so people are coming straight from the pub and it can make Mass very difficult," he said.
Canon Peter Turbitt, now a priest in Wantage, in Portstmouth diocese in southern England , recalled one incident of police being called three times when drunks attacked the church at St Michael and All Angels, Havant, southeast England.
"It is not nice being showered with bricks by drunken yobbos when you're trying to pray," he said. "A lot of people were frightened to walk home afterwards."
The Tablet cited Holy Rood, Barnsley, in Hallam diocese northern England, where the church ensures men stand near the door to act as informal bouncers during Midnight Mass.
Where priests have consulted parishioners over the timing, most have chosen an earlier liturgy.
Father John Gott, of the Good Shepherd, Mytholmroyd, in Leeds diocese, said the popular vote had led to a change to 8.30 p.m. "We reckon that's about midnight in Bethlehem," he said.
Father John Minh, priest in charge of St Luke's, Peterborough, in East Anglia, said parishioners had voted three to one in favor of a move to 10.30 p.m. "It's still tradition, but for rural or semi-rural areas like ours, we have to abolish it," he said.
At St Mary's Church, Pembroke, in Menevia, Wales, Carmelite priest Father Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard said he would celebrate two vigil Masses at different churches on Christmas Eve.
He worried, however, about a 5 p.m. Mass becoming a substitute for Christmas Day Mass for children.
"We have turned our practice of the faith into a matter of convenience rather than a matter of commitment," Fitzgerald-Lombard said.