Holy Innocents' Day

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Holy Innocents' Day

Childermas, Feast of the Holy Innocents, Innocents' Day

In chapter two of the Gospel according to Matthew, the birth of Jesus is followed by a massacre from which the Holy Family narrowly escapes. An angel warns Jesus' father Joseph that King Herod intends to kill the child, whom the Magi have identified as the newborn king of the Jews. The angel instructs Joseph to flee with his family into Egypt (see Flight into Egypt). Herod's soldiers arrive in Bethlehem after the Holy Family has departed. They slaughter all the male children in the town and surrounding region who are under two years of age. This event is known as "the slaughter of the Innocents." Holy Innocents' Day, observed on December 28, mourns this act of cruelty.

Church History

Three Christian festivals follow in close succession upon Christmas. St. Stephen's Day occurs on December 26, St. John's Day on December 27, and Holy Innocent's Day on December 28. These commemorative days were established in western Europe by the late fifth century. The individuals they honor share two things in common. Stephen, John, and the Innocents all lived during the time of Jesus and were martyred for him. In addition, Stephen, John, and the Innocents represent all possible combinations of the distinction between martyrs of will and martyrs of deed. The children slaughtered at King Herod's orders in Bethlehem did not choose their fate, but suffered it nonetheless, and so were considered martyrs in deed. St. John willingly risked death in his defense of the Christian faith, but did not suffer death, and so was considered a martyr of will. St. Stephen risked and suffered death for his faith, and thus became a martyr of will and of deed.

Around the year 1000, Holy Innocent's Day acquired a new name. The English began to refer to the observance as "Childermas," a contraction of childern (an archaic form of the word "children") and "mass." In the past, if Innocents' Day fell on a Sunday, the liturgical color was red, signifying martyrdom. If the feast fell on any other day of the week, the liturgical color was purple, signifying penitence. This difference reflected the doubt of some early theologians concerning the fate of the children's souls. Although they had died in Christ's place and so might be considered martyrs, they had not been baptized. In 1960 the Roman Catholic Church eliminated this variation in liturgical colors, assigning the red of martyrdom to all observances of the feast.

Folk Customs

Many of the customs associated with Holy Innocents' Day assign a special role to children. Moreover, a number of Innocents' Day customs encourage activities that reverse power and authority between the older and younger generations. Centuries ago in England, boy bishops held sway in some churches on Childermas (see also Feast of Fools). On December 28 the boy bishop was expected to deliver a public sermon before stepping down from office. In medieval times boy bishops could also be found in Germany and France. Another old English custom encouraged older family members to swat younger ones with switches on Childermas. Although one writer suggests that the practice served to remind young people of the sufferings of Bethlehem's Innocents, most folklorists view this practice as a remnant of an old, pre-Christian custom intended to drive out evil spirits, ill health, or other harmful forces.

Innocents' Day whipping customs were also popular at one time in central Europe. In some areas groups of children marched from house to house whipping girls and women with twigs and branches. A folk verse which accompanied this practice reveals that it was viewed as a means of imparting health, fertility, abundance, and good luck:

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 [Weiser, 1952, 133]. Childermas customs in some regions of Germany permitted children to strike anyone they passed with their whips of twigs and branches. The children demanded coins in exchange for this service, which was known as "whipping with fresh greens." In Hungary boys and men whipped women and girls with switches in order to endow them with health and beauty. In Yugoslavia mothers switched children, hoping to promote their health and strength. Afterwards the children circulated through the neighborhood, smacking adults with switches and receiving treats and coins in exchange.

In Belgium children seized control of the house on December 28. Early in the morning the children would collect all the keys in the house. Later, when any adult ventured into a room or closet for which they had the key, the child would lock him or her in. In order to gain their release the adults promised the child a treat, such as money, candy, fruit, or a toy. The children referred to these ransomed adults as their "sugar uncle" or "sugar aunt." In Austria old folk traditions also allowed children to play tricks on their parents on Holy Innocents' Day and to usurp their parents' authority by sitting in their chairs.

This playful, topsy-turvy spirit also runs through Innocent's Day customs in Mexico, Ecuador, and other Latin countries (see also Spain, Christmas in). Mexicans celebrate the day in much the same way we celebrate April Fools' Day - by playing practical jokes on one another. The one who gets fooled is referred to as an "innocent."


Another, more ominous theme also runs through the lore and customs associated with Innocents' Day, however. Because the feast commemorates such a despicable deed, it came to be viewed as an extremely unlucky day, according to old European folk beliefs. Any undertaking begun on Childermas was bound to fail, according to these superstitions. The Irish called December 28 "the cross day of the year" for that reason. Those who married on that day ran especially high risks of future misery. According to some sources, King Louis XI of France (ruled 1461-83) absolutely refused to conduct or discuss affairs of state on Holy Innocents'Day. It is also believed that the English monarch Edward IV (ruled 1461-70, 1471-83) postponed his own coronation ceremony, originally scheduled for December 28, for fear of tagging his reign with bad luck.

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. "December 28 - Innocents' Day." In his The Book ofDays. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, Mass.: G. and C. Merriam Company, 1974. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Joyce, E. J. "Innocents, Holy." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 7. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Holy Innocents' Day (Childermas)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 28
Where Celebrated: England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Boy Bishop, Whipping
Colors: The liturgical color for Holy Innocents' Day is purple, the color of mourning, since the children commemorated on this day died without being baptized. But if this day falls on a Sunday, custom permits the use of red, an indication that the Innocents have been given their rightful place as martyrs "baptized in blood."
Related Holidays: Feast of Fools


Holy Innocents' Day is a religious holiday related to Christianity, the largest of the world's religions, with nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Holy Innocents' Day commemorates the children slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to destroy the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16). When Herod heard that a child had been born who would become King of the Jews, he had every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem destroyed. But an angel appeared to Joseph, Mary's husband, and warned him to take his family and flee. Portrayals of this event, known as the Flight into Egypt, usually show the Virgin Mary riding an ass with the Infant Jesus in her arms (see FEAST OF FOOLS).

How many young boys were actually killed? Although their number has been wildly exaggerated, what is now known about the population of Bethlehem at the time would seem to indicate that only about fifteen to twenty "Innocents" actually died. But in the Greek catalogues of saints' feasts, the number of Innocents is still officially recorded as 14,000.

The earliest recorded mention of this feast dates back to the end of the fourth century. Christians in Rome during the early celebrations of the feast were expected to observe it by abstaining from meat and from foods cooked in fat. In many religious communities, Holy Innocents' Day was the traditional feast of youth. Children were given the privilege of sitting at the head of the table, and in many convents and monasteries, the last one to have taken vows was allowed to act as superior for the day. The youngest member of the community was often given a holiday and served baby food at dinner.

In England, where Holy Innocents' Day was known as Childermas, the coronation of Edward IV was postponed because it fell on December 28.

Because the young martyrs died before they could be baptized, the day devoted to them was considered extremely unlucky. In Cornwall, no housewife would scour or scrub on Childermas, and in some areas it was considered unlucky to do any washing throughout the year on the day of the week on which the feast fell. In Ireland, it was known as "the cross day of the year," and any venture begun on this day was doomed to an unhappy ending. Despite the bad luck associated with Holy Innocents' Day, it was observed throughout the Middle Ages with extravagant festivities, similar to those of the Roman SATURNALIA. Holy Innocents' Day


Boy Bishop

In England, France, and Germany, Holy Innocents' Day was also the Feast of the Boy Bishop, a celebration instituted by Pope Gregory IV in 844 when he declared March 12, the feast day of St. Gregory I, a holy day for all students and choirboys. One of the choirboys would dress in pontifical robes and impersonate St. Gregory. Sometimes he would preach a sermon or test his fellow students on their knowledge of religious doctrine. From the eleventh century onwards, the Feast of the Boy Bishop was moved to December 28, for by that time Holy Innocents' Day had become the official feast of students and choirboys. Unfortunately, it became identified with the FEAST OF FOOLS in some places, and for a long time it reflected the strange abuses of religious authority and decorum associated with this celebration. Choirboys would play at being bishops and call their self-appointed archbishop an "ass." Although the Feast of Fools was finally suppressed in the fifteenth century, the tradition of the boy bishop survived.

In England, the boy bishop's term of office extended from St. Nicholas' Day, December 6, until Holy Innocents' Day, when he would preach a sermon and be the guest of honor at a special dinner. If the boy bishop died during his term of office, he would be buried with full church honors. Although this cannot have been a very common event, in England's Salisbury Cathedral there is a small sarcophagus believed to have been made for a boy bishop who died between December 6 and 28.


Although the custom of whipping children on Holy Innocents' Day is believed by some to be a means of underscoring the biblical account of Herod's slaughter of the Innocents, it is probably a survival of a pre-Christian custom. Similar ritual beating can be found in many countries at various seasons, and it was originally intended not as a punishment, but as a way of driving out harmful influences or evil spirits. In central Europe, Innocents' Day was one of the traditional "spanking days" observed by an ancient fertility cult. Groups of children would go from house to house with branches and twigs, gently stroking women and girls while reciting an old verse wishing them many children.

In south and central Germany, the custom of pfeffern ("peppering") was also common on St. John's Day (see MIDSUMMER DAY) and ST. STEPHEN'S DAY. In the Thuringian Forest, children would beat passers-by with birch boughs and be given apples, nuts, and other treats in return. In France, children who slept late on Innocents' Day were whipped by their parents. The practice even gave rise to a new verb: innocenter, meaning "to excuse or declare someone not guilty."


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.

WEB SITE New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/07419a.htm

Holy Innocents' Day

December 28
Also known as Innocents' Day or Childermas, this day commemorates the massacre of all the male children two years and under in Bethlehem as ordered by King Herod, who hoped that the infant Jesus would be among them. Not surprisingly, this day has long been regarded as unlucky—particularly for getting married or undertaking any important task. Edward IV of England went so far as to change the day of his coronation when he realized it would fall on December 28.
In ancient times, the "Massacre of the Innocents" was reenacted by whipping the younger members of a family. But over the years the tables turned, and in some countries it has become a day when children play pranks on their elders. In Mexico, Childermas is the equivalent of April Fool's Day.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 860
BkDays-1864, vol. II, pp. 776, 777
BkFest-1937, pp. 49, 63, 175, 223, 234, 347
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 218, 525, 950, 951, 1018
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 339
FestSaintDays-1915, pp. 252, 255
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 20, 84
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 543
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 771
IndianAmer-1989, pp. 291, 315
OxYear-1999, p. 536

Celebrated in: Belgium

Holy Innocents' Day (Belgium) (Allerkinderendag)
December 28
Holy Innocents' Day is the traditional anniversary of the slaughter of Bethlehem's male children by King Herod, who hoped that the infant Jesus would be among them. According to legend, two of the murdered children were buried in the Convent of Saint Gerard in the province of Namur, Belgium.
Many Belgian children turn the tables on their elders each year on December 28 by locking them up. Early in the morning, they collect all the keys in the house, so that whenever an unsuspecting adult enters a closet or room, they can lock the door behind him or her and demand a ransom—usually spending money, candy, a toy, or fruit. The innocent person who is being held for ransom is called a "sugar uncle" or "sugar aunt."
The tricks played by children on Holy Innocents' Day have been compared to the pranks that children in the United States and elsewhere play on April Fools' Day.
BkFest-1937, p. 49
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 341
FestWestEur-1958, p. 20

Celebrated in: Belgium