It is the 28th of December 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A happy 4th day of Christmas to you- we do not know what the Colly Birds are, so sometimes we say “calling birds”- we’ve got a version that makes them collie dogs or colored birds. It is also a somewhat peculiar day in church history on which we get a juxtaposition of joy and sadness, for, in this octave of celebrating the birth of one baby, we remember the first martyrs of the Christian age- today is remembered as the Feast of The Innocents or in England “Childermas.” It is celebrated on different days across the church, but almost all in the Christmas octave or within 8 days of Christmas.
The Armenian church- that very ancient body celebrates near Pentecost- some historians have suggested that this would have made sense as the men in Bethlehem would have left for the festival, leaving the opportunity for soldiers to obey Herod’s command to kill all boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem.
If you remember, the Magi are supposed to go report back to Herod but are warned in a dream to scram- this enrages Herod, who orders the killing of all boys under 2- Joseph also receives an angelic message to get the Christ child and Mary to Egypt.
We also read that the death of the young boys is a fulfillment of a prophecy from Jeremiah 31 where we are told there would be weeping in Ramah- we know that Ramah was a high place in Benjamin, Rachel was the mother of that tribe, and she, according to Genesis 35 was buried in Bethlehem.
In the Middle Ages, this became a popular story to tell in the so-called “Mystery Plays”- these publicly performed pageants telling the life of Jesus. A popular place in England for these was the town of Coventry- and from the telling of this story, we get the haunting Coventry Carol- the “Lulla Lullay song”- it includes the stanza:
Herod, the King, In his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.
With this becoming a popular story and opportunity for striking sacred art, it, like many things, became over-exaggerated in the Middle Ages with stories that the massacre was in the ten to hundred thousand children.
And it would make sense that any such massacre would surely be attested to in other accounts from this time- and they aren’t. But someone pointing this out might not be the dunk they think it is. Bethlehem was small- the number couldn’t be more than in the dozens. We also are told that while Herod called for this, we don’t know how successful it was. Regardless, the death of any child would cause the weeping foreseen by Jeremiah and applied to this even in Matthew’s Gospel.
While the Feast of the Innocents is treated solemnly in many contexts, in some, not so much, we know that this was also celebrated during the so-called “Feast of Fools.” The Feast of Fools was a winter tradition, sometimes linked to Saturnalia, wherein the people would subvert the order of things as both a lark and as a subtle reinforcement of traditional norms. In some places, a child would be elected to be Bishop for a day, or the youngest sister in a convent would be put in charge. In Spanish-speaking regions, it became something like April fool's Day- a child could pull a prank and then claim “innocente!”- a play on their claiming to be innocent but also it is the “day of the Innocents”- certainly an inversion of a dark event transformed in popular culture.
The day would be rued by some in the British Isles, where it became a tradition to whip your children on this day. It was also seen as an unlucky day- you wouldn’t want to schedule any event of importance today.
Two days after St. Stephens day- recognizing the first martyr of the Church age, we remember the first to die on account of Christ- the Feast of the Innocents on this the 28th of December.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Matthew 18:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 28th of December 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows the 4 calling birds, according to the Christmas Price Index, would be $599.96. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who reminds you that it’s the Tax Act Texas Bowl Tonight, not the Tax Slayer Gator bowl… it’s easy to mix those up. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.