Childermas – 28 December

Today, 28th December is Holy Innocents’ Day or Childermas (Children’s Mass). It was part of the Twelve Days of Christmas in Tudor times and commemorated the massacre of the baby boys which King Herod ordered in Bethlehem, in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus Christ.

The story of the massacre is told in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew. King Herod asked the ‘Wise Men’ to go and search for the Christ child and then to return to him: “Goo and searche dyligetly for ye chylde. And when ye have founde hym bringe me worde yt I maye come and worshippe hym also.” Of course, he had no intention of worshipping this threat to his authority. The Wise Men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod: “And after they were warned of God in a dreame that they shuld not go ageyne to Herod they retourned into their awne countre another waye.”

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt and to live there until the angel brought word “For Herod will seke the chylde to destroye hym”. As soon as Joseph awoke from his dream, the family fled to Egypt.

The came the massacre, which Matthew tells us fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah:

“Then Herod perceavynge yt he was moocked of the wyse men was excedynge wroth and sent forth and slue all the chyldren that were in Bethleem and in all the costes there of as many as were two yere olde and vnder accordynge to the tyme which he had diligetly searched oute of the wyse men. Then was fulfilled yt which was spoken by the Prophet Ieremy sayinge: “n the hilles was a voyce herde mornynge wepynge and greate lamentacion: Rachel wepynge for her chyldren and wolde not be conforted because they were not.”

On 28th December 1534, Childermas, a carol written by Robert Croo and now known as the Coventry Carol was performed in the city of Coventry in the mystery play called “The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors”. The carol referred to the massacre in one of its verses:

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

Here is a video which has the Coventry Carol being performed by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

By the way, the Bible quotations I have used in this article come from William Tyndale’s New Testament and I thought they were appropriate here because we know that Anne Boleyn used his New Testament translation.

Picture: Detail from “The Massacre of the Innocents” by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1515), National Museum in Warsaw, from Wikipedia.

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6 thoughts on “Childermas – 28 December”
  1. Herodes Magnus (Herod the Great), seems to have become the tyrant we perceive today laterly in his reign, not unlike our own Henry VIII. He executed a once beloved wife, and some of his sons, so he seems capable of the kind of atrocity recorded in the Bible (one verse only, in Matthew). Modern research seems to suggest that Bethlehem was so small, a village, that the number of infants of an age would be about 7/20, and this might be the reason Josephus doesn’t mention it? Herod reminds us of Henry medically too, his depression and paranoia, and final illness, described as ‘excruciating’ .. perhaps kidney disease complicated by Fournier’s gangrene. It was a grim reaping, anyway!

  2. This was a terrible thing and I believe it happened. We don’t know how many babies were killed or if Bethlehem was a small village, large village or small town. Modern research does suggest it was small, but its exact size is unknown. Other scholars have suggested that the order may have included the surrounding countryside. There is a controversial debate about whether the incident happened as it is only recorded in the gospel..Of course it is questioned, it’s the Bible…had some Greek poet bewailed it 200 years later or some Egyptian carved it in twenty feet high glyphs in stone with a few exaggerations it would never have been questioned. Just because Nicholas of Damascus, Herods only contemporary biographer does not mention it, then that means it never happened. Well not quite.

    You see Nicolas was in his service, he was paid to write this book. But he also added something very important as a footnote. He added that Herod gave many more terrible orders, some too terrible to describe here. He also adds that when Herod lay dying (I won’t go into the gruesome details) he was in that much pain that he began to give orders which did not make sense. He said he had never been loved but would leave this life to the wailing of thousands. How? He gave the order for 3000 young men and boys to be rounded up and killed at the time of his death. His sister was so horrified that she intervened and ordered their release. So who knows what crazy orders a paranoid, mad, ill King may order? Josepheus of course tells us all this in his histories and some extant letters and other sources confirm many actions, his buildings are a testament to his reign and greatness and strong rule, his temple was a marvel all who saw it declared. His deeds were numerous and bloody.

    We are told he killed his two young sons by Mariammne, killed two of his brothers, killed his young brother in law, the high priest, killed his wife and kept her body in a jar where he visited her every night for ten years as he could not bare anyone to have her, in the end he killed his two eldest sons as well as he imagined that he was being attacked by them. He had priests at the Temple and students who put up a protest banner killed, he supported Mark Anthony and then Octavian, he got rid of most of the bandits, arrested the Sanhedran, rebuilt the Temple, the biggest harbour in the East, several cities, Herrodian, his mighty fortress, where his tomb was found, he gave orders for several massacres that were not carried on, so yes, he gave the order for these poor children to be put to the sword, I have no doubt about that. He was mad enough and in the end, sick enough as well.

    May the holy innocents, remembered this day rest in peace and let perpetual light shine on them. We don’t know their names or how many they were but they are known to the Lord Most High and in His mercy and care. Amen.

  3. IF the ‘deeds (of a man, in this case, the man Herod) were numerous and bloody, is it historically accurate to say of an event, an event for which we have only one source, one single description, and that from a source which has a known vested interest in the promulgation of this assertion, that we ‘Believe’ that it is correct? As secular historians,fact based and sceptical, surely all we can venture about Herod and his alleged ‘slaughter of the innocents’ is that we ‘think it may have happened, or that we think it highly likely that it happened but that we can never know for sure. Does Faith compromise history? Can Faith be a blindfold to the truth? I think it has to be but what do you think?

    1. Hi Globerose…as historians we have to be careful of all events for which there is little textual evidence. There is a degree of course of extra importance in the alleged massacre, due to its link to a more significant event also described in the text, the flight into Egypt by Jesus and his family. Some evidence exists in Egypt to support their stay there and there are traditional sites and stories that say they stayed for a number of years. I am sceptical about some of this, but I can’t provide evidence to the contrary so allow for possibilities. Yes, I think that in the case of scripture, faith does play a role in acceptance as Josepheus does not record the event. However, there are textual problems with him as he was a Roman puppet. He emerged from a cave after a rebellion to hand himself over to the Romans, after everyone else in the cave had killed themselves. Josepheus was clearly smarter and not the stuff of heroic martyrs. He also ended up being expelled during the Seige of Jerusalem, as he was not trusted and became a scribe and political historian for Rome.

      This was also a local event, it was more likely a small massacre, even if Herod did order it, possibly one of many. It would not have been seen as significant by historians or political writers of the day. However, to religious Jews at the time or prophets or local Jewish Christians its significance may have become apparent later when someone told the story of the flight into Egypt. For Christians there was no question that it happened and the children are seen as the first martyrs, those whose death allowed one child, the infant Jesus to escape. The political significance comes in the light of Herod, having already depleted his own bloodline through murder, his third wife and her sons. Herod was more and more paranoid in his last few years, just as his son Antippas would become. He was ill, in pain and going mad. If he heard a new King had been born, in his paranoia it is a logical assumption that he would want him dead. Nicolas of Damascus and Josepheus describe an increase in the number of rivals that Herod the Great desposed of during his last six years, including two more sons, a brother and the last Hasmanean King, currently his guest as a deposed monarch. He was starved or strangled depending on which source you read. Remember, Herod and his father and brothers had given years of military and henchmen services to the royal family, the Hasmoneans, before ousting them with Roman help. Herod was married to the granddaughter of this last King before he had her and her sons killed. It is believed that her death deeply affected Herod, he was much more dangerous after her death. Whether she was really kept pickled in a jar may again be fantastic, but there is a more famous story of a Queen who went mad and did not bury her spouse. Joanna, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand refused to allow her dead husband, Philip to be buried and went mad with grief. Again, this is partly from an aggressive source, but her grief was very deep.

      There are numerous events in Herods life that can be verified, but several others have to be weeded out as the source is questionable. Josepheus does not record everything, his biographer, Nicholas of Damascus alone contains many of the juicer stories, not all can be backed by either Roman or extant sources. Biblical sources are problematic, but many are verified by other sources, mainly those with regards to history and known people, for example Cyrus the Great and the Assyrian Kings, but as with many local events, they depend on eye witness testimony, which can also have problems. It also depends on local testimony and significantly it may only be important locally, so may not be written by historians, but local people will keep the story well. This can be one way to interpret the story of the innocents.

      Another way of interpretation of early sources was by their deeper meaning. Jesus birth and his life are scene as fulfilling of earlier prophecy and here in the text is such a prophecy about Rachel crying for her lost children. Rachel, who died in childbirth, wife of Jacob was buried near Bethlehem. The prophecy was very well known and Bethlehem important as the designated birthplace of the promised Messiah. It may have been small, but it was also a stopping off place on the journey to Jerusalem, it was a royal village, the royal flocks of sheep were grazed closeby (not in December, obviously) it was a place of pilgrimage and connected to David, of whose house Mary and Joseph belonged. Yes, 10 and 30 boys under 2 is reasonable, but it could have been more had Bethlehem been swelled by pilgrims or people travelling for religious purposes or political taxation. The number is actually not important, 30 babies is still a terrible loss of precious infant life. The incident was important because it was connected to the life and survival of a child many believe to have been that Messiah. The incident is described at times as meaning that as Rachel would weep for the lost children of Israel, those who were killed in Egypt, the massacre of the first born sons, she is weeping as her children go into exile and the flight into Egypt is symbolic of being that exile in reverse, with the flight being to that same country that the Israelites and Moses had come out off to their new home. All of this is wrapped into sermons and commentary on the Massacre of the Innocents.

      For centuries the incident has been accepted, it is questioned today and placed in the context I have babbled on about above, but it could still have been just one of the many massacres Herod is described as ordering as his illness took hold, which are grouped together by Nicholas of Damascus. In the end, as with many texts, faith and reasonable determination play a part. Herod was more than capable of giving an order and if historians believe he is capable of killing members of his own family, then they need to accept he gave orders for such atrocities as well. Child murder was just as shocking then as it is now, that does not mean it did not happen. We can’t know for certain, but, yes, I believe this happened and the number big or small is terrible, for those mothers whose babies were killed in their arms, a great cry would be heard for many miles.

  4. it makes me laugh when some people complain that “Happy Holidays” doesn’t promote Christianity..When there’s the Octave of Feasts (aka Holy Days) which some Christians , esp round this part of Quebec , celebrate/commemorate as part of the Christmas season

  5. Happy New Year in advance and have a good evening. I will be enjoying our two days of festival and feasting on thrones. Tomorrow is also dedicated to Our Lady. Quite right, Christmas is a Christian festival of the nativity, but it is also many other things, Festival of Lights, Yuletide and a variety of old mid Winter festive birth of the New Sun. I am celebrating the Christian festive season for the full twelve days and am closed. Happy time for all is wished, peace and love to you all and stay safe if you are out tonight. Cheers.

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