Friday, December 28, 2018

Fourth Day of Christmas:
Feast of the Holy Innocents

Four days into the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I'm stymied with how people handled this specific day. It's a feast day, alright, but the designation is in recognition of a rather somber occurrence: the Feast of the Holy Innocents. How does one celebrate an event as macabre as that?

As it turns out, not only is this one of the designations for the Twelve Days, but it became the inspiration for one of the older tunes you might recognize from the Christmas season: the Coventry Carol. Admittedly, a lullaby for babies about to be murdered is a non-starter, despite being set to a tune which is hauntingly beautiful.

So how does one go about celebrating the occasion of a jealous king hell-bent on eliminating all competition? The mass murder of infants seems so senseless, even in the context of biblical scripture. The Catholic Church—of which I am not even a member, much less a theological analyst—depicts the Innocents' loss of life as martyrdom. But a feast?

I had to go looking for examples of how the day was historically celebrated among those in my ancestry. You can be sure, if the carol commemorating the event is over four hundred years old, the activities associated with the day would be much more ancient. Once known as Childermas, the day's roots reach back, in western Christian denominations, to the fifth and sixth centuries. Naturally, over the many years between then and now, the day has evolved greatly.

I was surprised to learn of the customs which have now sprung from that day. It would seem natural to see this day as a day of sadness, but over the generations, the day was once marked by strange caricatures of the remembrance of mourning. In medieval England, for instance, parents would remind their children of the mournfulness of the day by whipping their children in bed, first thing in the morning.

Thankfully, the viewpoint on how to "celebrate" the day has changed, but don't think the pendulum didn't swing wildly in the other direction. Eventually, the original tragic day got turned on its head, as it became one in which the youngest in the family got to "rule the day." The "baby" of the family gets to choose what foods to eat that day, what music will be listened to, or what things the family will do for fun. In Spain and some of its former colonies, Childermas is treated as a kind of April Fool's Day in which the one tricked is called "Innocente!" Often, it is the young playing tricks on their elders, who must then pay a ransom to escape being tricked.

A logical extension of the origin of the event is the custom some parents have of making the day one in which they specifically bless their children. No matter how sweet or innocent those children may be, every parent is reminded that, despite their young age, no child has a guarantee of a future of good health and long life.

Being reminded of that brings to mind some experiences we've had in our own family. This past year has been particularly difficult for my husband's cousin's daughter, who had one four year old child undergo surgery for a brain tumor (and the ensuing months of chemo treatments), while upon the heels of that ordeal, had to see that child's twin sister through cataract surgery to restore her sight. I'm sure you can also think of similar situations which have been endured in your own extended family.

And though it certainly didn't occur this year, my sister-in-law recalled that the only other son in our Stevens family—my husband's only brother—lost his life unexpectedly in a car wreck when he was still a teenager; his sixty-eighth birthday would have been yesterday. No matter how long these young people have been gone, we still remember them. Perhaps for their innocence. But also because they were family.   


  1. How very interesting to read of these customs, and especially during this time of reflection. Thank you for presenting this.

    1. Cynthia, when I started this exploration, I only vaguely knew of the saying, "the twelve days of Christmas." I certainly didn't have any family heritage which included such extensive celebration.

      Now that I've explored the roots of this sequence of days, I've been amazed at how many disparate points of history are being connected to the larger narrative. I would never have dreamed it that way.

  2. Thank you for sharing about this day. I always feel so sorry for little ones that are struggling.

    1. Far Side, that is the hardest for me, too: to see little ones suffering. Of the message of these twelve days of the Christmas season, this day's thought resonates the most with many people, I'm sure. There's just something so innocent about children...


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