During the Christmas season, we naturally think of babies. The whole season is about the Nativity of the Lord, God coming to us as a little child in a manger. All around us, we see children playing with new toys, dressed in special holiday clothes and enjoying a Christmas school break.
On the fourth day of Christmas (the fifth day for the Eastern-rite churches), though, we honor other children.
Dec. 28 is the feast of the Holy Innocents.
These are the children mentioned in Matthew 2:16-18, right after the story of the Magi visiting the infant Jesus. Sometimes we forget that King Herod had a bigger role in the Christmas story than just sending the Magi to Bethlehem.
When the Wise Men from the East didn’t come back to him, as he had asked, Herod became furious. Suspecting, as he had done in many cases, a conspiracy against his reign, he dispatched soldiers to Bethlehem. He “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Mt 2:16).
The feast of the Holy Innocents (also called Childermas in Britain) is an ancient feast in the church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it dates to around the fourth or fifth centuries. And it was purposely set to fall during the week of Christmas because these children — no one knows their number — are considered to be the first martyrs for Christ.
The flower martyrs
Yes, the feast of St. Stephen, the “proto-martyr,” is celebrated Dec. 26 and he was the first follower of Christ to knowingly give his life for the faith. However, the children who died in the infant Jesus’ place — too young to even know about him, much less profess any faith — died so that Jesus might live. St. Augustine set the tone for this; he called them “infant martyr flowers (flores martyrum) the church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.”
Numbers vary widely
Even though no one knows how many children died by Herod’s hand, we do know Bethlehem was a small town at that time. Many traditions have given extraordinary numbers for these children — such as 144,000 to match the number of those bearing God’s name in the Book of Revelation. However, they were probably under two dozen in number. That, however, does not make their loss any less bitter.
When the feast of the Holy Innocents was set, it was instituted as a Mass of mourning. The Gloria and the Alleluia were not used and this tradition largely continues.
Many hymns and chants developed to honor these blessed children. One that still exists today is the “Coventry Carol,” also known as “The Lullay Song.” Many people only think of this carol in minor key as a lullaby for the child Jesus. However, it is actually a lullaby from the mothers of Bethlehem to their soon-to-die children.
The carol dates to around the 16th century. It was part of a mystery play performed during the Christmas season at Coventry, England. “Mystery plays” were theatrical productions. They first appeared shortly after the time of St. Augustine, as a means of telling Gospel stories; the first ones dealt with the Resurrection and were performed by clergy. “Mystery” refers to the mystery of God in salvation history.
Over the centuries, these mystery plays became more and more elaborate and took on all sorts of added characters and scenes. They also portrayed different events from the Bible — from Adam and Eve to the end of the world. Eventually — because some plays became bawdy — they were moved out of the church setting and into the streets.
After that, each play needed sponsors to pay for the sets, costumes and actors. Professional actors filled the main roles and local people served as stand-ins and in “crowd scenes.” Many plays were sponsored by local guilds — groups of merchants — that paid for the play and for the pageant wagons on which they for Christ were performed. (And, of course, roles were usually all played by men.)
“The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors” was a Nativity play hosted by merchants who dealt in cloth. In it, three mothers, with their children, came on stage right after Joseph was warned to flee by an angel in a dream. The poignant lullaby sung by these women of Bethlehem precedes the violent arrival of Herod’s soldiers.
Holy Innocents’ traditions
Realizing the history of this lullaby adds dimension to other traditions that surround the Feast of the Holy Innocents, especially in Europe.
- One of these is that, on this day, the youngest member of a household gets to make all the rules.
- In Spain and countries of Hispanic origin, there is the tradition of the Día de los Inocentes, the “Day of the Innocent Saints.” The tradition is to trick someone — as Herod was tricked by Jesus’ escape. It has since developed into a sort of April Fools’ Day, perhaps to lighten the somberness of the feast. Tricks take place and anyone fooled gets to hear “¡Inocente, inocente!” shouted at them.
- Another tradition of the day was that the youngest person in a monastery or a convent received a special meal of “baby food” usually a form of milky wheat porridge flavored with cinnamon and sugar.
- A final tradition is not quite as lighthearted and more in tone with the sad carol of Bethlehem’s mothers. It is that of eating red food on Dec. 28. A popular treat has been raspberry sauce. This recalls the blood of the child martyrs.
And yet, even with its sadness, the feast of the Holy Innocents takes place during the joyful season of Christmas. This should remind us to never forget that Christ came to save us all.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; fishereaters.com; the Encyclopedia Britannica; texasnuns.com; catholicculture.com; “The Christmas Carol Reader”; spain.info/en; and timeanddate.com