28 December 2011

28 December - Holy Innocents; 4th Day of Christmas

Weather:  the weather today indicates the weather of April.

If the sun shines on the 4th day of Christmas, there will be a great loss of money.
            on the other hand
If it be lowering and wet on Childermas Day, there will be scarcity; while if the day be fair, it promises plenty. 

[take your pick]

In Bethlehem, of Juda, the birthday of the Holy Innocents, who were massacred for Christ by king Herod.

Lully, Lullay, thou little child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lully, thou little tiny child
By, by, lully, lullay

(There are more Carols and Poems for the Holy Innocents here, with three versions of the Coventry Carol.)

Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the Natales Sanctorum Innocentum, also known in English as Childermas and in German as Kindermesse. In the midst of Christmas celebrations, we mourn the slaughter of the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem, as ordered by King Herod.  These babies are the example of martyrdom by deed and not will, for they lost their lives involuntarily on account of Our Lord. 

At first, the victims of the massacre were commemorated in conjunction with the feast of the Epiphany, but by the 5th century, a separate day was assigned to the Holy Innocents, close by the Nativity with which it is associated.

Traditionally, this is the unluckiest day in the calendar.  It is not a good day to start any new undertaking, like getting married, or getting a head start on your New Year's Resolutions, or trying a new recipe, or wearing new clothes.  Scouring and scrubbing were right out, and it was believed that anything begun that day would come to an unlucky end.  To some, the actual weekday on which fell (this year it is Wednesday) was considered unlucky throughout the following year - to the extant that not only would they not start a journey, or any of the above activities, they would not wash clothes or themselves that day.

[Sounds like something our own Innocents would pull.  What next?  No doing chores or homework, going to school, getting out of bed on Wednesdays... because Holy Innocents fell on a Wednesday?  Hop right into that bathtub, youngster!]

Another tradition was to whip the children first thing in the morning as they lay in bed, to remind them of the grievousness of this day.  Naturally, the remedy for that (and children are smart; they do think of remedies) is for the children to get out of bed first, before the parents are awake.  With time, the tradition changed to whipping the last person found lying in bed, which must have made for a pretty mad scramble in the morning.

Of course, good ol’ Naogeorgus found the whole thing distasteful, from the foolish papists who asked the intercession of these martyrs to the monks who obviously got some kind of satisfaction out of being beaten:

Then comes the day that calls to mind the cruel Herod’s strife,
Who, seeking Christ to kill, the King of everlasting life,
Destroyed the little infants young, a beast unmerciless,
And put to death all such as were of two years age or less.
To them the sinful wretches cry, and earnestly do pray,
To get them pardon for their faults, and wipe their sins away.
The Parents, when this day appears, do beat their children all,
(Though nothing they deserve), and servants all to beating fall,
And Monks do whip each other well, or else their Prior great,
Or Abbot mad, doth take in hand their breeches all to beat:
In worship of these Innocents, or rather, as we see,
In honour of the cursed King, that did this cruelty.

[Do you think he was always the last one out of bed?]

For all its unluckiness, this was also a day of children, in which they pulled pranks on their parents and other adults in the house or school, like stealing the house-keys (in the days when rooms and closets had key locks) and locking a parent in a closet or the schoolmaster out of his classroom, until they received a promised forfeit of a cookie or a little money [had Naogeorgus only known, he could have inveighed as well against teaching the little darlings the value of extortion].

In honor of today, let the children choose the menu and the activities. [Don’t shudder.  It is only one day.  You will survive.  And who knows?  You might even like tacos or peanut-butter-and-jelly three times a day, and endless viewings of 'The Fairies Rescue Christmas'.]

Of course, it might also make you think that Herod had the right idea.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Massacre of the Innocents. 1308-11.  Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena.