Two Catholic churches in Cullman will celebrate traditional midnight Masses at the start of Christmas day.

Priests at St. Bernard Abbey and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church said midnight Mass is a tradition central to the Catholic faith.

"Probably the best way to say it is it's really at the heart of the faith," said Father Joel Martin of St. Bernard Abbey. "What midnight Mass celebrates is God coming to us as man. God is so close to us he became a little baby."

Rev. Kevin McGrath of Sacred Heart said the midnight service is one of his earliest memories. McGrath recalled listening to his uncle sing as a soloist during the service when McGrath was a boy, and later participating in the Mass as an altar server, eventually being selected to serve with his bishop.

"It's very special to Catholics because it's a very traditional time," McGrath said. "A lot of families sort of plan their Christmas around that."

McGrath estimated about 500 people typically attend Sacred Heart's midnight Mass, including many non-Catholics.

"We have a lot of non-Catholics come to the service, and they're certainly welcome," he said.

Martin said the midnight service at St. Bernard draws more than 200 people, many alumni of the prep school.

"There's a lot of nostalgia connected to Christmas as well as aspects of the faith," Martin said. "People think of it as a happy time in their life. There's a lot of memories connected to the day."

Martin said midnight Mass can help lift the spirits of those depressed during the holidays by thoughts of lost loved ones.

"Mass puts the right perspective on everything and retains the heart of the season," he said. "It's what it's all about."

Sacred Heart will offer music before Mass starting at 11 p.m. today. St. Bernard Abbey's midnight service will be preceded by music from renowned Alabama organist Betty Louise Lumby beginning 10:30 p.m. today.

Martin said Lumby has provided music at the abbey every Sunday for the last 15 years.

"She's been very generous to us over the years," Martin said. "She loves to come and play our organ."

Lumby is a professor of organ at the University of Montevallo and a Fulbright scholar. Martin said she is widely respected among organists.

"Anybody in the music world, especially the organ world, knows her," he said.

Lumby's music, including some of her original compositions, should last until about 11:45 p.m., Martin said. She will also play during the Mass.

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