Thursday, December 28, 2023

Childermas Customs

The Massacre of the Innocnent, depicted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, ca. 1305. (Image from Wikimedia Commons © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part II

Previously, we looked at some of the customs surrounding the feasts of St. Stephen (December 26) and St. John (December 27), especially those with a topsy-turvy dimension. Today, we look at one of the feast of the Holy Innocents, which is more explicitly tied to social inversions and practical jokes.

In an attempt to kill Jesus, whom he thought was a rival for his crown, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem two years old and under (Matt. 2, 16-18). St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us how many died in the massacre. The Byzantine liturgy mentions 14,000, the Syrian churches speak of 64,000, and some medieval authors, inspired by Revelation 14, 3, speak of a staggering 144,000. But based on fertility rates and the size of the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, a more realistic estimate places the number of the slain somewhere between ten and twenty.
Matthew’s account is also silent about the date of the massacre, except for hinting that it happened within two years of the apparition of the Christmas star that guided the Magis. The Western churches, from what we can tell, have always kept the feast of “Childermas” (Children’s Mass) on December 28, ever since it first began being celebrated in the fifth century. In so doing, the calendar presents an interesting array of Christ’s friends on December 26, 27, and 28: first St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr who is a martyr by will, love, and blood; then St. John the Evangelist, who is a martyr by will and love (John is considered a martyr because of the attempts made on his life even though he died a natural death); and lastly, the Holy Innocents, who are martyrs by blood alone. As St. Augustine says of them, “They are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution.”
The Humble Shall be Exalted
Understandably, Innocents’ Day is a magnet for topsy-turvy customs that involve young and old. In many religious communities, the novices had the privilege of sitting at the head of the table at meals and meetings, while the last person who had taken vows in the monastery or convent got to be superior for a day. Young monks and nuns would receive congratulations and have “baby food,” such as hot cereal, served to them for dinner.
A similar flip-flop occurred in the family. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby were standard ways of observing the feast, and the youngest child was allowed special privileges and honors, even becoming master of the household.
Not all customs, however, bode well for the young ’uns. As we mentioned in an earlier post, some children awoke to a spanking from their parents “to remind them of the sufferings of the Innocents!” In central Europe, groups of children would revive a pre-Christian fertility rite by going to women and girls with branches and twigs and chanting:
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.
They would then swat them gently with branches and twigs. In the Philippines and Spanish-speaking countries, Childermas is the equivalent of April’s Fools Day, a time of pranks and practical jokes called inocentadas.
Lastly, Childermas was an important day for the Boy Bishop. From Italy to Scandinavia and from Ireland to Hungary, medieval Christians relished the custom of “consecrating” a boy an honorary bishop as a vicar of St. Nicholas. The Boy Bishop could reign for as long as from December 6 to December 28. During that time, he and his entourage solemnly processed through the town and blessed the crowds, (we still have inventory records of the little vestments kept for the occasion), and they even had access to church funds, which led to predictable abuses – not unlike their corrupt adult counterparts, the boys sometimes emptied the church kitty to fuel their merriment. But there was a touching side as well. When a boy bishop in the diocese of Salisbury died during his brief appointment, he was given the full funeral of a bishop and buried in the cathedral.
Eventually, authorities began to crack down. In 1541, King Henry VIII outlawed the practice as superstitious and pagan. Queen Mary brought the boy bishop back, but after Elizabeth’s accession he fell into disfavor again; by the seventeenth century he was an extinct species in England. In 1982, however, the Anglican cathedral in Hereford resurrected the custom, and he again presides over some services from December 6 to 28 and gives a sermon. He is installed in a memorable way: during the celebration of Evensong or Vespers, when the Magnificat is sung, the bishop of Hereford rises from his episcopal throne at the verse “He hath put down the mighty from their seat.” Then, the boy, dressed in the regalia of a bishop, takes his seat at the verse “And He hath exalted the humble” and is given the bishop’s crozier. Whatever effect this inversion has for the boy, it must surely be good for the humility of the bishop.
All of Christendom once abstained from servile work during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but there was an extra incentive to do so on the feast of the Holy Innocents. According to an old superstition, it is bad luck to begin any new work on this day, either because it will never be finished or because it will come to a bad end. Regardless of the version, the superstition was strong enough to keep leaders like King Louis XI of France and King Edward IV of England from doing any business today. Perhaps the rationale is that just as the Holy Innocents’ lives were cut tragically short, so too would be any work done on their feast day. In German-speaking countries, Christianity almost literally baptized a pagan fear of souls wandering the earth after the winter solstice. According to legend, the souls of unbaptized children are chaperoned by the frightening Hel, the Germanic goddess of the underworld (from which the English word “Hell” is derived). Each child carries a pitcher filled with the tears he or she shed that year. But thanks to the mercy of God, if a person on Innocents’ Day hears their cry in the howling wind or sees their ghostly shape fluttering in the dark, he should call out a Christian name. By being given a “baptismal” name, the child is freed from Lady Hel’s grip and allowed to join the Holy Innocents in eternal bliss.

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

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