Both traditions go far back into history but their origins are uncertain. Church scholars tell us that the custom probably began because midnight is traditionally thought to be the hour of Jesus's birth.
According to canon law Christmas day is the only time when three different Gospels are used in three different services on the same day.
The church law prescribes that the first Mass on Christmas Day should be in nocte, while it is still night. Early Christians in Rome made galli cantum, the first cock crow, the proper time for this Mass. Roman roosters apparently made their first call about 3 a.m., and that was set as the time for the Mass that some Spanish-speaking people still call the Misa del gallo, or Mass of the rooster.
The custom of a midnight mass, and of three separate Gospels, may have begun in the 7th century, when the Pope went to several churches in Rome to celebrate Christmas Mass. He celebrated the first Mass around midnight in a small chapel of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. His second Mass may have been about 3 a.m., and was in the small church of St. Anastia in Rome. His third Mass was at St. Peter's Basilica, where a much larger congregation could attend.
Because of the Gospel stories for each Mass, the first came to be known as the Angel's Mass, the second as the Shepherd's Mass, and the third as the Mass of the Divine Word.
In the early days, Christmas was a highly religious feast in French Louisiana. While everyone was at Mass, Papa Noel sometimes paid a visit and filled children's stockings with a trinket or some fruit, but gifts were usually exchanged at the New Year, not at Christmas.
However this is Louisiana, and so we did adopt with gusto the tradition of a huge feast, called la reveillon, after Midnight Mass. A reveillon menu for an affluent family in the 1800s, recreated for a 1959 Home Demonstration Agents convention in New Orleans, included deviled eggs with mushrooms and baked eggs with shrimp; a loaf of French bread laced with dates, apples, almonds, wine, and spices; orange praline rolls; daube glace (a jellied meat); spiced peaches; dates soaked in wine; wine cake; and white, red, and dessert wines to drink.
Another menu, from a less affluent household, might include daube glace for the appetizer, followed by a cup of shrimp and crab gumbo. The main course would be turkey or duck, served with butterbeans in roux, candied yams, dirty rice, cornbread dressing and potato salad.
Dessert for either menu might include les oreilles de cochon--a fried pastry--covered with a sauce made with cane syrup and pecans, and served with piping hot black coffee.
All of this was followed by another after-Christmas-meal tradition--a good solid nap.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589