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The Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today the 28th of December we celebrate the Feast of The Holy Innocents. They are the Patron Saints of Babies. The day commemorates the execution of the innocent, male children in Bethlehem as told in Matthew 2:16.

Also known as the Feast of the Holy Innocents (and referred to as Childermas) refers to King Herod’s order found in Matthew’s account of the king’s reaction to the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy. This day is observed in the Western churches on December 28th and Eastern churches on December 29th. These children are considered martyrs, Saints of God, by the Church.

On this day it is custom to give the youngest child in the household the power to rule the day. From what to eat, where to go, and what to do, the youngest is in charge.

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 Fool’s Day is celebrated.

Herod was born around 74 B.C. The Romans appointed him King of Judea in 37 B.C.

Upon hearing of the birth of the King of the Jews – a threat to his rule and the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy – Herod ordered the execution of all the male children in Bethlehem. While scholars debate the exact date and even dispute whether the massacre happened, the feast has been celebrated since before the end of the fifth century.

Herod “the Great,” king of Judea, was unpopular with his people because of his connections with the Romans and his religious indifference. Hence, he was insecure and fearful of any threat to his throne. He was a master politician and a tyrant capable of extreme brutality. He killed his wife, his brother, and his sister’s two husbands, to name only a few.

Matthew 2:1-18 tells this story: Herod was “greatly troubled” when astrologers from the east came asking the whereabouts of “the new-born king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen. They were told that the Jewish Scriptures named Bethlehem as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod cunningly told them to report back to him so that he could also “do him homage.” They found Jesus, offered him their gifts, and warned by an angel, avoided Herod on their way home. Jesus escaped to Egypt.

Herod became furious and “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under.” The horror of the massacre and the devastation of the mothers and fathers led Matthew to quote Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children…” (Matthew 2:18). Rachel was the wife of Jacob (Israel). She is pictured as weeping at the place where the Israelites were herded together by the conquering Assyrians for their march into captivity.

The Holy Innocents are few in comparison to the genocide and abortion of our day. But even if there had been only one, we recognise the greatest treasure God put on the earth—a human person, destined for eternity, and graced by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is impossible to determine the day or the year of the death of the Holy Innocents, since the chronology of the birth of Christ and the subsequent Biblical events is most uncertain. All we know is that the infants were slaughtered within two years following the apparition of the star to the Wise Men (Belser, in the Tubingen "Quartalschrift," 1890, p. 361). The Church venerates these children as martyrs (flores martyrum); they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead (St. Aug., "Sermo 10us de sanctis").

The Latin Church instituted the feast of the Holy Innocents at a date now unknown, not before the end of the fourth, and not later than the end of the fifth century.

The Roman Station of December 28 is at St. Paul's Outside the Walls, because that church is believed to possess the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents. A portion of these relics was transferred by Sixtus V to Santa Maria Maggiore. The church of St. Justina at Padua, the cathedrals of Lisbon and Milan, and other churches also preserve bodies which they claim to be those of some of the Holy Innocents.


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