Holy Innocents’ Day
In chapter two of the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW, the birth of JESUS is followed by a massacre from which the Holy Family narrowly escapes. An ANGEL warns Jesus’father JOSEPH that King HEROD intends to kill the child, whom the MAGI have identified as the newborn king of the Jews. The angel instructs Joseph to flee with his family into EGYPT (see FLIGHT INTO EGYPT). Herod’s soldiers arrive in BETHLEHEM after the Holy Family has departed. They slaughter all the male children in the town and surrounding region who are under two years of age. This event is known as “the slaughter of the Innocents.” Holy Innocents’Day, observed on December 28, mourns this act of cruelty.
Three Christian festivals follow in close succession upon Christmas. ST. STEPHEN’S DAY occurs on December 26, ST. JOHN’S DAY on December 27, and Holy Innocent’s Day on December 28. These commemorative days were established in western Europe by the late fifth century. The individuals they honor share two things in common. Stephen, John, and the Innocents all lived during the time of Jesus and were martyred for him. In addition, Stephen, John, and the Innocents represent all possible combinations of the distinction between martyrs of will and martyrs of deed. The children slaughtered at King Herod’s orders in Bethlehem did not choose their fate, but suffered it nonetheless, and so were considered martyrs in deed. St. John willingly risked death in his defense of the Christian faith, but did not suffer death, and so was considered a martyr of will. St. Stephen risked and suffered death for his faith, and thus became a martyr of will and of deed.
Around the year 1000, Holy Innocent’s Day acquired a new name. The English began to refer to the observance as “Childermas,” a contraction of childern (an archaic form of the word “children”) and “mass.” In the past, if Innocents’ Day fell on a Sunday, the liturgical color was red, signifying martyrdom. If the feast fell on any other day of the week, the liturgical color was purple, signifying penitence. This difference reflected the doubt of some early theologians concerning the fate of the children’s souls. Although they had died in Christ’s place and so might be considered martyrs, they had not been baptized. In 1960 the Roman Catholic Church eliminated this variation in liturgical colors, assigning the red of martyrdom to all observances of the feast.
Many of the customs associated with Holy Innocents’ Day assign a special role to children. Moreover, a number of Innocents’ Day customs encourage activities that reverse power and authority between the older and younger generations. Centuries ago in ENGLAND, BOY BISHOPS held sway in some churches on Childermas. On December 28 the boy bishop was expected to deliver a public sermon before stepping down from office. In medieval times boy bishops could also be found in GERMANY and FRANCE. Another old English custom encouraged older family members to swat younger ones with switches on Childermas. Although one writer suggests that the practice served to remind young people of the sufferings of Bethlehem’s Innocents, most folklorists view this practice as a remnant of an old, pre-Christian custom intended to drive out evil spirits, ill health, or other harmful forces.
Innocents’ Day whipping customs were also popular at one time in central Europe. In some areas groups of children marched from house to house whipping girls and women with twigs and branches. A folk verse which accompanied this practice reveals that it was viewed as a means of imparting health, fertility, abundance, and good luck:
Many years of healthy life,
Happy girl, happy wife:
Many children, hale and strong,
Nothing harmful, nothing wrong,
Much to drink and more to eat;
Now we beg a kindly treat [Weiser, 1952,133].
Childermas customs in some regions of Germany permitted children to strike anyone they passed with their whips of twigs and branches. The children demanded coins in exchange for this service, which was known as “whipping with fresh greens.” In Hungary boys and men whipped women and girls with switches in order to endow them with health and beauty. In Yugoslavia mothers switched children, hoping to promote their health and strength. Afterwards the children circulated through the neighborhood, smacking adults with switches and receiving treats and coins in exchange.
In Belgium children seized control of the house on December 28. Early in the morning the children would collect all the keys in the house. Later, when any adult ventured into a room or closet for which they had the key, the child would lock him or her in. In order to gain their release the adults promised the child a treat, such as money, candy, fruit, or a toy. The children referred to these ransomed adults as their “sugar uncle” or “sugar aunt.” In Austria old folk traditions also allowed children to play tricks on their parents on Holy Innocents’ Day and to usurp their parents’ authority by sitting in their chairs.
This playful, topsy-turvy spirit also runs through Innocent’s Day customs in MEXICO, ECUADOR, and other Latin countries (see also CHRISTMAS IN SPAIN). Mexicans celebrate the day in much the same way we celebrate April Fools’ Day—by playing practical jokes on one another. The one who gets fooled is referred to as an “innocent.”
Another, more ominous theme also runs through the lore and cus-toms associated with Innocents’ Day, however. Because the feast commemorates such a despicable deed, it came to be viewed as an extremely unlucky day, according to old European folk beliefs. Any undertaking begun on Childermas was bound to fail, according to these superstitions. The Irish called December 28 “the cross day of the year” for that reason. Those who married on that day ran especially high risks of future misery. According to some sources, King Louis XI of France (ruled 1461-83) absolutely refused to conduct or discuss affairs of state on Holy Innocents’ Day. It is also believed that the English monarch Edward IV (ruled 1461-70,1471-83) postponed his own coronation ceremony, originally scheduled for December 28, for fear of tagging his reign with bad luck.