On December 28th the Catholic Church commemorates the massacre of the children put to death by King Herod when Christ was born in Bethlehem. Herod had interviewed the Wise Men who followed the star in their search for the new-born king.
He sent them to Bethlehem, and told them to come back and give him the exact location of the child. But after they had visited the baby, an angel in a dream told them not to go back to Herod.
Herod was angry, because he wanted to do away with the baby as a possible rival to his throne. So he sent his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and under. He was prepared to kill them all in order to get rid of the new-born king. This is all recorded in the Gospel (Matthew 2, 1-12).
By the year 1000 A.D. the English began to refer to Holy Innocents’ Day as “Childermas”, which is a combination of the two words, “Children” and “Mass”. It was the day on which Mass was celebrated in honor of the children who were considered as little martyrs because they died for Christ.
Many new customs emerged in different parts of the world in association with the celebration of Holy Innocents’ Day. These customs assigned a special role to children, often reversing the role of power and authority between children and grown-ups.
In Belgium, early on the morning of Holy Innocents, the children would take control of all the keys in the house. Later, when a grown-up went into a room or closet, the child would lock the door, and not allow the person to come out until they had promised to pay a “ransom” of money, or candy or a toy. Tradition in other countries allowed children to play tricks on their parents, and to assume the parents’ authority by sitting on their chairs.
In the Spanish-speaking world, and in other Latin countries, people celebrate Holy Innocents’ Day by playing practical jokes on one another. The person who gets fooled in the joke is referred to as an “innocent”.
But Holy Innocents’ Day never lost its serious side. In Ireland it became known as “the Cross day of the year”, because of the terrible deed being remembered. In old European folk beliefs it was considered an unlucky day on which to begin anything new.