The tradition of celebrating Mass at Midnight on 24 December is said to date back to the 5th century, and to the region of Provence. However, before the mass itself is held, a vigil takes place, providing a moment of contemplation interspersed with chants and music.
"Noël" chants hold pride of place in Provence. The term "Noël" normally refers to a chant or canticle in the Provençal language, in which poets expressed both religious fervour and local traditions.
The "Noël" is in fact chanted in the form of dialogue and is ideally suited to the theatrical scenes found in pastorale musical plays: the most famous are those of Nicolas Saboly (1614-1675) from Avignon, which Frédéric Mistral described as "capable of moving a whole church to tears".
In addition to the chanted canticles and Noëls, the midnight mass ceremony includes a traditional ritual known as the "pastrage", which takes place at the moment of the offertory procession (see Provençal Christmas traditions).
Nativity mass in Saint Ferme (33) in Aquitaine
Nativity mass celebrated in Occitan and a live Christmas crib
A nativity mass in Occitan is held in the Romanesque Abbaye de Saint Ferme, at the heart of the Entre deux Mers area, around 90 minutes by car from Bordeaux. The mass is sung by an Occitan choral society with its accompanying musicians, with the congregation repeating the canticles. Around fifty people of all ages from the village and surrounding area walk in procession to take their place at the foot of the altar where they participate in a live Christmas crib with Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and the shepherds, in addition to the Three Wise Men and the representatives of traditional rural trades. The donkey and ox are also present of course, occasionally alongside a new-born lamb.
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Midnight mass at Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy
- Vigil at 9pm followed by a mass at 9.30pm in the abbey
- Nativity mass at 11.30pm in the abbey
- Solemn Christmas mass at 12.15pm in the abbey
- No mass in the parish church