Holy Innocents – also known as Childermas, Innocents’ Day and Feast of the Holy Innocents – is a holiday which falls on different days in the Western and Eastern Christian churches. In Western churches, it is celebrated on December 28th and in Eastern churches, it is celebrated on December 29th.
The purpose of this holiday is to commemorate the massacre of children by King Herod as he was attempting to kill baby Jesus. These children have been regarded as the first martyrs of the early church and has been celebrated way before the fifth century when it was celebrated as a part of Epiphany. However, by the fifth century, it had become a separate festival and eventually became a saint’s day.
The Massacre of the Innocents
The story of Herod is told in the Book of Matthew Chapter 2, verses 1 through 18. In this story, Herod was a king of Judea that was very unliked by his people because he was indifferent to religion and had connections with the Roman Empire. This unpopularity caused him to be extremely fearful that someone was going to kill him and seize his throne, so he took every opportunity to eliminate his rivals and make sure that he had no enemies.
Then one day, Eastern astrologers came to him and asked him about the whereabouts of the “newborn king of the Jews.” They were told that Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place in which the next Messiah would be born, and having seen this king’s star, decided to pay him homage. Herod told them they should report back to him when they found him, so he too could pay homage to the newborn king. These astrologers found Jesus, the newborn king, and offered up their gifts to him. However, they received a warning from an angel that told him to avoid Herod, which they did. Jesus was then able to escape to Egypt. Unable to find Jesus, Herod became enraged and ordered all of the boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be put to death.
History of Holy Innocents
Holy Innocents as a holiday can be traced back to the year 485 A.D when it was celebrated as a feast day in the Western Church, or more specifically in the Leonine Sacramentary. However, it wasn’t celebrated as its own feast day but was instead a part of the Feast of the Epiphany and was celebrated in January. Eventually, sometime after the 5th century, it became decoupled from Epiphany and became its own feast day. In modern times, it has been known as Holy Innocent’s Day, Childermas, Children’s Mass and Innocents’ Day.
It is celebrated on December 27th in the Maronite Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church; on December 28th in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church; and on January 10th in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Celebrating Holy Innocents
This holiday has been practiced in different ways by different people all throughout history. Prior to the 17th century, it was customary to spank your children at sunrise on Holy Innocents to remind them of the suffering the innocents of Bethlehem had to endure. Today, however, that practice has fortunately died out for the most part. Up until 1962, priests in the Roman Catholic church would wear violet vestments for this holiday. However, it was changed to red vestments during that year.
Nowadays, people often attend churches in which the priest say a prayer called the Blessing of the Children; in Mexico, it is celebrated with pranks – much in the same way that April Fools Day is celebrated.