Catholicism, Catholic, Traditional Catholicism, Catholic Church

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Feast of the
Holy Innocents (Childermas)

In the second chapter of the Book of Matthew is recorded the story of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, an event which recalls the Pharaoh's instructions to midwives during the time Israel was enslaved in Egypt:
Exodus 1:15-16, 22:
And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews: of whom one was called Sephora, the other Phua, Commanding them: When you shall do the office of midwives to the Hebrew women, and the time of delivery is come: if it be a man child, kill it: if a woman, keep it alive...

...Pharao therefore charged all his people, saying: Whatsoever shall be born of the male sex, ye shall cast into the river: whatsoever of the female, ye shall save alive.

Moses was saved from this murder when his mother placed him in a little ark and floated him in the river. Moses's sister watched from afar as the Pharaoh's daughter found the child (Exodus 2). The massacre from which Moses was spared is a type, a foreshadowing, of the massacre of the holy innocents that took place soon after Christ was born.

As to the slaughter of the Innocents in the New Testament, first some background: Herod the Great, the Governor of Galilee, was an Idumean Jew whom History describes as an extremely cruel man: he was a man who killed several of his wives and his own sons when he suspected they were plotting against him. Challenges to his power were met with a swift and final response, and he even tried to ensure that his cruel campaigns survived him when he arranged that on the day he went on to his eternal reward, hundreds of men in the area would be killed so that there would be mourning at his funeral. Though this arrangement was never carried out, it speaks well of Herod's nature.

And during this tyrant's reign, the Magi -- whose adoration of Baby Jesus is rememberd on the Epiphany (6 January) and its Eve (Twelfthnight) -- saw the Star of Bethlehem and went to Jerusalem, asking where the new King of Jews may be found. Herod heard of their asking around about the newborn King and, calling the high priests to find out about this this Child, was informed that it was prophecied that the Child would be born in Juda.

Threatened by this prophecy, he sent for the Magi to find the Child and report back so he could go and "worship," too. The Magi found Jesus but, knowing Herod's heart after having it revealed to them in a dream, didn't go back to tell Herod of His wherabouts.

Meanwhile, the Holy Family, warned when St. Joseph was visted by an angel in a dream, makes their flight into Egypt.

Herod became enraged at the Wise Men's "betrayal," and killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. This detail from a painting by Léon Cogniet reveals the utter horror of the event:

The fourth day of Christmas commemorates these baby boys, who are considered martyrs -- the very first martyrs (St. Stephen, whose Feast was commemorated 2 days ago, was the first martyr of the Church Age). As Bethlehem was a small town, the number of these Holy Innocents was probably no more than 25, but they are glorious martyrs who died not only for Christ, but in His place. Vestments will be red or purple in mourning, and the Alleluia and Gloria will be supressed at Mass. Note that the first three feasts after Christmas are feasts of martyrs -- though martyrs of different kinds. December 26 honors St. Stephen, a martyr by will, blood, and love; December 27 honors St. John, a martyr by will and love; today, December 28, honors the Holy Innocents, martyrs by blood alone.


First, a prayer for the day:

Ye holy Innocents, blest Babes, earliest martyrs of Jesus Christ, the King of martyrs, how bright a life was won by that sharp death! Beautiful little martyrs of the holy Child, your eyes soon closed upon the dull mists of earth, to open upon untold glories. Bitter and short the passage, but oh, how passing sweet the end! How sweet to have died for Him Who came to give His life for you! Pray for me, ye stainless ones, before the Throne, that I too, unworthy and wayward as I am, may come to be with those who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth. Most Holy Child Jesus, save Thy children.

As to customs, the youngest child "rules the day." It is the youngest who decides the day's foods, drinks, music, entertainments, etc. (if you have a number of small children, you might want to divide up the honors among them). Other than this sort of frivolity, Childermas is, according to old English lore, a "'bad luck" day on which no  big undertakings should be attempted. Such a black day it is that whatever day of the week Childermas falls on will be "unlucky" until next Childermas.

In Spain and Hispanic countries like Mexico, Childermas is rather like April Fools Day is in America and France. Tricks are pulled, and the one tricked is called "Innocente!" rather than an "April Fool!" In many places, it is the young who play tricks -- on their elders, whom they often lock inside rooms and such until the oldsters pay a ransom!

To recall the blood of the martyrs, a food with a red color, such as raspberry sauce or cherry sauce -- good served over ice cream --  is traditional.  

Raspberry Sauce

10 oz pkg. frozen raspberries
1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 c. red currant jelly

Thaw and crush raspberries. Combine with cornstarch. Add red currant jelly and bring to boil. Cook and stir until mixture is clear and thickens slightly. Strain and chill. Makes 1 1/3 cups. Serve over rice pudding, ice cream, blanc mange, white chocolate mousse, etc. (If you don't have red currant jelly, you can omit the cornstarch, too, and just purée the berries with a TBSP or two of sugar without cooking. Just blend well and sieve to remove seeds.).

Cherry Sauce

4 cups frozen cherries, chopped or kept whole, as you prefer
1/4 cup water
1 TBSP cornstarch
1 TBSP lemon juice
2 TBSP sugar
1 tsp almond extract

Put the water in a saucepan and whisk in the cornstarch, lemon juice, and sugar. Turn heat to medium and keep stirring until the mixture is thickened. Add the cherries and bring to a light boil, cooking for about 10 minutes. Take off heat and stir in the almond extract.

On this day of all days, the father of the home should formally bless the children. A common way of doing this is as follows:


O Lord, hear my prayer.


And let my cry come unto Thee.


Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, once Thou embraced and placed Thy hands upon the little children who came to Thee, and said: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father!" Look now with fatherly eyes on the innocence of these children and their parents' devotion, and bless them this day through our prayers.

The father signs the forehead of each child with holy water.


In Thy grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for Thee, loving Thee, fearing Thee, keeping Thy commandments. Then they will surely come to their destined home, through Thee, Savior of the world. Who lives and reigns forever and ever.




May God bless you. And may He keep your hearts and minds -- the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.



 As to music, the haunting and lovely Coventry Carol concerns the slaughter of the Innocents, and is most fitting for today:

Coventry Carol
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

O sisters too,
How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling,
For whom we do sing,
By by, lully lullay?

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

Herod, the King, In his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

That woe is me, Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting
Nor say nor sing
By by, lully lullay!

And there is William Byrd's "Lulla, lullaby, my sweet little baby", which Mary sings to her Baby Son, to soothe Him as He cries over the children who were slaughtered. Here it is sung by a group called The Sixteen:

My sweet little Baby, what meanest Thou to cry?
Be still, my blessed Babe, though cause Thou hast to mourn,
Whose blood most innocent to shed the cruel king has sworn;
And lo, alas! behold what slaughter he doth make,
Shedding the blood of infants all, sweet Saviour, for Thy sake.
A King, a King is born, they say, which King this king would kill.

O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!
Lulla, la-lulla, lulla, lullaby.

Three kings this King of kings to see are come from far,
To each unknown, with offerings great, by guilding of a star;
And shepherds heard the song which angels bright did sing.
Giving all glory unto God for coming of this King,
Which must be made away — King Herod would Him kill.


Lo, lo, my little Babe, be still, lament no more:
From fury Thou shalt step aside, help have we still instore;
We heavenly warning have some other soil to seek;
From death must fly the Lord of life, as lamb both mild and meek;
Thus must my Babe obey the king that would Him kill.


But thou shalt live and reign, as sibyls hath foresaid,
As all the prophets prophesy, whose mother, yet a maid
And perfect virgin pure, with her breasts shall upbread
Both God and man that all hath made, the Son of heavenly seed,
Whom caitiffs none can 'tray, whom tyrants none can kill.


While it is easy to get lost in the nightmare of what happened to the Innocents, it's to be remembered that they ultimately triumphed! They are Saints of God, as this painting by William Holman Hunt shows. The Innocents are seen with the Holy Family, in spirit, during the Family's Flight to Egypt:  

Triumph of the Innocents, by William Holman Hunt, 1883-4

Note: A Novena to the Magi in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany is also often begun today, ending on Twelfthnight -- 5 January, the Vigil of the Epiphany.

From Gueranger's "Liturgical Year"

The feast of the beloved Disciple is followed by that of the Holy Innocents. The Crib of Jesus -- where we have already met and venerated the Prince of Martyrs and the Eagle of Patmos -- has today standing round it a lovely choir of little Children, clad in snow-white robes, and holding green branches in their hands. The Divine Babe smiles upon them - he is their King; and these Innocents are smiling upon the Church of God. Courage and Fidelity first led us to the Crib; Innocence now comes, and bids us tarry there.

Herod intended to include the Son of God amongst the murdered Babes of Bethlehem. The Daughters of Rachel wept over their little ones, and the land streamed with blood; but, the Tyrant's policy can do no more:- it cannot reach Jesus, and its whole plot ends in recruiting an immense army of Martyrs for heaven. These Children were not capable of knowing what an honour it was for them, to be made victims for the sake of the Saviour of the world; but, the very first instant after their immolation, and all was revealed to them: they had gone through this world without knowing it, and now that they know it, they possess an infinitely better. God showed here the riches of his mercy - he asks of them but a momentary suffering, and that over, they wake up in Abraham's Bosom: no further trial awaits them, they are in spotless innocence, and the glory due to a soldier who died to save the life of his Prince, belongs eternally to them.

They died for Jesus' sake -- therefore, their death was a real Martyrdom, and the Church calls them by the beautiful name of The Flowers of the Martyrs, because of their tender age and their innocence. Justly, then, does the ecclesiastical Cycle bring them before us today, immediately after the two valiant Champions of Christ, Stephen and John. The connection of these three Feasts is thus admirably explained by St. Bernard: "In St Stephen, we have both the act and the desire of Martyrdom; in St. John, we have but the desire; in the Holy Innocents, we have but the act. ... Will any one doubt whether a crown was given to these Innocents?... If you ask me what merit could they have, that God should crown them? let me ask you, what was the fault, for which Herod slew them? What! is the mercy of Jesus less than the cruelty of Herod? and whilst Herod could put these Babes to death, who had done him no injury, Jesus may not crown them for dying for Him?

"Stephen, therefore, is a Martyr, by a Martyrdom of which men can judge, for he gave this evident proof of his sufferings being felt and accepted, that, at the very moment of his death, his solicitude both for his own soul and for those of his persecutors increased; the pangs of his bodily passion were less  intense than the affection of his soul's compassion, which made him weep more for their sins than for his own wounds. John was a Martyr, by a Martyrdom which only Angels could see, for the proofs of his sacrifice being spiritual, only spiritual creatures could ken them. But, the Innocents were Martyrs to none other eye save thine, O God! Man could find no merit; Angel could find no merit: the extraordinary prerogative of thy grace is the more boldly brought out. From the mouth of the Infants and the Sucklings thou hast perfected praise. [Ps. viii. 3.] The praise the Angels give thee, is: Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will: [St. Luke, ii. 14.] it is a magnificent praise, but I make bold to say, that it is not perfect, till He cometh who will say: 'Suffer Little Children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven;' [St Matth. xix. 14.] and in the mystery of my mercy, there shall be peace to men that cannot even use their will." (Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents.)

Yes, God did for these Innocents, who were immolated on his Son's account, what he is doing every moment now by the sacrament of regeneration, in the case of children, who die before coming to the use of reason. We, who have been baptised by water, should be all the more ready to honour these Little Ones, who were baptised in their own blood, and thereby associated to all the mysteries of the Divine Infancy. We ought, together with the Church, to congratulate them, for that a glorious and premature death secured them their innocence. They have lived upon our earth, and yet it defiled them not! Truly, these tender Lambs deserve to be for ever with the Lamb of God! May this same earth of ours, grown old in wickedness, draw down the divine mercy on itself, by the love and honour it gives, each year, to these sweet Children of Bethlehem, who, like the Dove of Noah's Ark, could not find whereon to rest their feet.

In the midst of the joy, which, at this holy time, fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod's soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and, unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy, which inundates her soul during the Octave of her Jesus' Birth. The Red Vestments of a Martyr's Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she, therefore, vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness. [Unless it be a Sunday; in which case, the colour used is Red.] The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days, when Angels come down from heaven to sing it - even that must be hushed today: and, in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined Christian considerateness.

This expression of sympathy gives today's Office a pathetic sadness, which, however, in no ways interferes with the joy, which the Church feels in celebrating the Feast of the Holy Innocents. She keeps it with an Octave, as she does the two preceding Feasts of St. Stephen and St. John. She sanctions the practice, observed in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, of allowing young boys to share in the duties of the Choir, and blend their innocent chanting with that of the Ministers of God. She grants them several privileges, and takes pleasure in seeing the delight wherewith these children perform the several functions entrusted to them. This joy, this simplicity, this innocence, all add a charm to the divine Service; and through these youthful Choristers, the Church pays honour to the Infant Jesus, and to the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

In Rome, the Station for the Feast of St. Stephen is in the Church dedicated to the holy Protomartyr, on Monte Celio; that for St. John is in the Basilica of St. Mary Major; today, the Station is made at St. Paul's beyond the Walls, which possessed several of the bodies of the Holy Innocents. In the 16th century, Pope Xystus the Fifth caused a portion of these Relics to be translated to St Mary Major's, and put near the holy Relic of our Lord's Crib.

Back to Customs of the Liturgical Year
Back to Being Catholic