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Midnight Masses of times past


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Chair of Heritage and Art in Navarre

Christmas Eve had, until a few decades ago, its two traditional components in the family celebration and the Midnight Mass. At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter still kept the legacy of a secular past, rich in singular representations and popular festivities by dancers and shepherds, which turned it into a liturgical function extraordinarily crowded and lived with overflowing joy. It was a night of lively pastorelas and carols, accompanied with all subject of percussion instruments. Everything was diminished as a consequence of the iron reform of sacred music of the Motu proprio of St. Pius X, in 1903.

As it is known, the denomination of this celebration obeys the tradition that points to the rooster as the first animal that saw the Redeemer and was in charge of communicating the news to the world. Its celebration dates back to the 5th century, in the time of Pope Sixtus V, and it was one of the three celebrations held at average at night, at dawn -also called shepherds' day- and on the morning of Christmas Day.

In the cathedrals of Pamplona and Tudela: the matins

Christmas Eve in the Pamplona church began with Matins. A text by Leocadio Hernández Ascunce (1883-1965), chapel master and former infante, takes us back to the end of the 19th century with this account: "At ten o'clock the liturgical official document began and ended at exactly twelve o'clock. There was no lack of families from Pamplona who, faithful to their traditions, went to hear some time and then spread out for the cock mass in their favorite churches and convents. There was still no electrical installation or heating. Over the lateral doors of the temple there was a lantern. Inside and along the aisles, axes were placed. On the main altar the Virgin of the Tabernacle was uncovered, illuminated by two little silver angels with a lighted candle. The six liturgical candles in the main altar and two candles in the altars of the side chapels. In the center of the choir two large axes and a formidable brazier to temper the long room as much as possible. The corresponding candlesticks on the choir chairs, the complete music chapel, the resident prebendaries in their places and the bishop, in his episcopal chair. This was the atmosphere and the emotion of the music in our souls was of divine resonance. The echo of that polyphony remains deep in our hearts".

We know the texts of some carols, such as those composed in 1716 by the chapel master Miguel Vals, preserved in the Library Services of the Royal Academy of History. In 1777 the bishop of Baztan, Irigoyen y Dutari, expressed his dissatisfaction with the airs of those compositions in language vernacular.

On Christmas Eve in Tudela, the municipal authorities and the prelates of the religious orders, placed in the cathedral choir, attended the solemn singing of the calenda, intoned by a canon. At the end, there was a short sermon "announcing the mystery, the speaker placed in the high chair of the choir". The matins were sung at nine o'clock at night, "and because of the solemnity and carols that the music sings in them, they last until twelve o'clock, at which time the mass is sung".

Political and ecclesiastical censorship

In Pamplona, in order to avoid possible disturbances, in political circumstances that were not easy, the Political Chief ordered, in 1821, to celebrate the Midnight Mass behind closed doors. Similar prohibitions occurred in other localities in the agitated 19th century, especially in times of political changes.

Political censures had been preceded by those of some ecclesiastics in the 18th century. Pedro de Calatayud, a Jesuit from Tafalla, famous for his popular missions, affirmed in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment that "the noise and indecency that is perhaps practiced with pots, pans and noise" on Christmas Eve was "offensive to the God of Majesty, He went so far as to affirm that "those who in the matins of the Nativity mix at the time of reading the lessons sainetes, nicknames, words and indecorous expressions clumsy and seriously dissonant of that passage and sacred mystery, for the grave scandal that they give in this," sinned mortally. With all this he seems to refer to certain expressions of the popular soul that were given free rein that night.

Night of noise and disturbance

The excesses on Christmas Eve were grade common in different localities. In the capital of Navarre, in 1681, there were great disturbances in the church of the Poor Clares of Santa Engracia, even to the point of breaking down the doors, with "a channel or manger of sheep", with great shouting and throwing stones, chestnuts and nuts.

In Cirauqui, in 1830, a certain commotion took place during matins, before the Midnight Mass, when eight people entered the church, dressed as shepherds, with "a small amount of stewed haddock" and the vicar came down from the choir to send them away, obeying them all at once. The event did not stop there, but during the night two bullets were introduced in the room of the vicar and the organist, for what long judicial proceedings were opened. The declarations of several witnesses inform us of the attire of those rustic people: wide hats, shawls with wool and sandals. Regarding the stew, some speak of soups, others of stewed haddock and others of ajo de arriero (farmer's garlic).

In Tudela, the Christmas Eve had quotation crowded in the Franciscan convent, with a procession with the Baby Jesus to be placed before the Mass of the rooster in the presbytery, inside a great cave, in which the images of the Virgin and Saint Joseph were already arranged. group From some legal proceedings, we know that, in 1795, a group of men who had gone overboard with the wine, organized some disturbances inside the conventual church, with whistles of those used by the street capadores, a vihuela and a bugle, while they tried to process some images and released some rockets of streamers on the floor. Thanks to these documents we know the development of the ceremonies inside the temple on such a singular night. A witness, named José Puyo, besides reporting the excesses, tells us how he helped the sacristan to prepare, among other objects, the cave for the adoration of the Child God, as well as the axes for its illumination.

Sometimes, the excesses were carried out by the clergy. As an example we will cite the abbot of Arboniés who, in 1798, was denounced because he used to get drunk, being deprived of his senses and having to be accompanied home by some charitable persons. In the aforementioned year, during the Midnight Mass, he was the protagonist of some absurdities that led to his imprisonment.

In Cintruénigo, Fitero and other localities

In Cintruénigo the people cheered with shouts of Viva! in response to the acclamation of a resounding Viva el Niño Dios! pronounced with a powerful voice, as soon as the celebrant began the Gloria. In 1916, the priest bursar Don Alfonso Bozal, tired of several interruptions, had to announce that he was ending the Mass, without any singing, by praying it. A year later, the parish priest, after welcoming the custom, asked that it only be done three times, although the following year the Mass was suppressed for a long time, and the custom was forgotten.

Iribarren refers to several cases of dances on Christmas Eve, such as in Tafalla, where a farmer with short breeches in the Franciscans did it at the beginning of the 19th century, while a mountain friar played the chistu and the tamboril. In Olite, the municipal corporation, dressed in golilla costume, attended the Midnight Mass and, once it was over, a kind of artichoke was lowered from the top of the dome by means of a stage that opened, revealing the Baby Jesus in his cradle, before whose image the local shepherds danced. Dicastillo and Corella also had their own dances in the temples on such a singular night. In Corella, at the end of the mass, a man and two children dressed as shepherds would perform a shepherd dance with whimsical jumps and "requiebros", to the rhythm of Christmas carols.

In the case of Fitero, the joy overflowed in that night and, sometimes, it reached extremes that were not convenient for the liturgical atmosphere. Precisely because of some excesses, at the end of the 19th century, a kind of pastoral performance had to be suppressed inside the church. Until then, the shepherds of the village used to have their particular Christmas Eve dinner, some migas, apparently well watered with wine, in front of the nativity scene, under the pulpit. One year, a certain parish priest, not very condescending, expelled them from the church and they never came back. Apparently, at some point during the mass, they would declaim some texts that could well derive from the famous Officium pastorum, so popularized since the end of the Age average in so many places in Spain. At the offertory, the adoration of the Child took place. The officiant took off the manipule and took the image of the Divine Infant in his hands to give it to the people to kiss. Then, the shepherds, duly attired, proceeded to dance before the newborn. Of that tradition only the musical witness remains today, specifically the custom of interpreting during the offertory of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, some shepherds' airs and gallegadas, which the organists have been bequeathing since the second third of the nineteenth century.

José María Iribarren gives an account of the custom in the villages of the Pyrenees "had a cheerful, popular, pastoral air. And in a naive color of a lively nativity scene, with offerings and carols, with roosters and sparrows, with pastoral dances, with whistles, bagpipes and castanets. The church indulgently tolerated these expansive festivities with which the people, in their own way, commemorated the happy dawn".

Other testimonies from the 20th century

If we go to periodicals collection we find some news in reference letter to the masses of the rooster in other localities. In 1903 in Caparroso, even before the new liturgical legislation was applied, the Mass was accompanied by "organ, violins, bandurrias, drums, tambourine, tambourine and other instruments typical of Christmas Eve, directed by the renowned organist of this town, Don Joaquín Berruezo". In Berbinzana, in 1907, during the ceremony "several young people dressed in masquerade garments entered the church. When these youths took a seat in a chapel, the vicar begged them to leave, but they did not do so until the mayor forced them to do so. Once the expelled youths were outside the church, several subversive shouts were heard and two shots rang out. Up to now, the authors of these punishable acts are unknown".

In 1915 the massive affluence in parishes and convents of Pamplona is recorded, pointing out what happened in the Escolapios, "where artistic and ample nativity scenes have been installed, the parade of the faithful has constituted the characters of a true pilgrimage. And in spite of the great agglomeration of people, the order and the composure have been exemplary".

In Orbaiceta, until 1926, according to Mª Luisa Astráin, "thecustom was preserved that six young men from the farming family, dressed in black suits, cowhide sandals and drums made with sheepskins, went through the town singing Basque Christmas carols.... Their tour ended at the Town Hall, which was gathered in batzarre. The six drums sounded. The door was opened and with great solemnity they were received. They sang for everyone. At the cock mass they were placed on the altar, three on each side. The moment of the consecration was announced by a drum roll. The mass was enlivened with carols that they would sing".

From Lesaca, it was reported in 1928: "With extraordinary joy and animation these classic celebrations were celebrated: the streets were very animated of young people with their Olenceros and at six o'clock in the afternoon the municipal band went out to also cross the town with its also Olencero, being very crowded all night and at twelve o'clock as of very old custom they went to the religious ceremony of the Mass of the rooster all the gangs, where the beautiful church presented an imposing aspect with a very profuse illumination and crowded of faithful, presided by the first deputy mayor Mr. Manuel Macicior; soon at one o'clock in the morning ended the mass and the cuadrillas with their musicians went to the classic garlic soups....".

In 1953, from Peralta it was reported that "The traditional Mass of the Rooster was an act that had not been known (at least by us) so crowded with faithful our parish church, despite being in capacity one of the main ones of our diocese". In Tafalla, in 1957, they also insisted on the great affluence of the faithful.

The year 1965 arrived with new airs. In Pamplona, Mass was celebrated for the first time outside a church, at the place of San Francisco, at the initiative of the Kirol Club, which took up an idea of the famous announcer of Radio Requeté, Uncle Ramón (Ramón Urrizalqui). In Tudela, in the church of the Lourdes neighborhood, some "ye-ye boys, dressed in weird black sweaters" harmonized the mass with their guitars.