The Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas or Innocents’ Day is a Christian feast held on December 28 in the Western Church and December 29 in the Eastern Church in remembrance of the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem by Herod the Great — king of Judea — in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18). In Spain and Latin American countries, the day is celebrated with pranks (inocentadas), similar to April Fools’ Day. The slain children were regarded by the early church as the first Christian martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. It may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.
The second chapter of the Book of Matthew tells how the Magi, wise men from the East skilled in the interpretation of heavenly signs, come to Jerusalem seeking the one born to be king of the Jews. King Herod, deeply disturbed, seeks the advice of his priests and scribes (the “teachers of the law”), who inform him that according to the prophets the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, about five miles away. Herod sends the Magi there, telling them to come at once and inform him when they find the child so that he may go and pay homage. The Magi discover Jesus, but return home by another way after an angel warns them not to alert Herod because he intends to kill the infant.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
The massacre fails to kill the infant Jesus, because his father, warned by an angel, has escaped with him and his mother to Egypt, there to wait for Herod’s death and a safe return to the land of Israel.
Most modern biographers of Herod dismiss Matthew’s story as an invention. Classical historian Michael Grant, for instance, stated “The tale is not history but myth or folk-lore”. It is found in no other gospel, and the Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his Antiquities of the Jews (circa AD 94), which records many of Herod’s misdeeds including the murder of three of his own sons. It appears to be modeled on Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Israelite children (Exodus 1:22), and more specifically on various elaborations of the original story that had become current in the 1st century. In that expanded story, Pharaoh kills the Hebrew children after his scribes warn him of the impending birth of the threat to his crown (i.e., Moses), but Moses’s father and mother are warned in a dream that the child’s life is in danger and act to save him, and Moses, like Jesus, returns only when those who sought his death are themselves dead.
The story of the massacre of the innocents thus plays a part in Matthew’s wider nativity story, in which the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah (the birth) is followed by his rejection by the Jews (Herod and his scribes and the people of Jerusalem) and acceptance by the gentiles (the Magi). The relevance of Jeremiah 31:15 to the massacre in Bethlehem is not immediately apparent, as Jeremiah’s next verses go on to speak of hope and restoration.
Others admit the presence of the “New Moses” paradigm in the nativity story (and its continuation throughout the gospel), but feel that the story of the massacre must have had some historical foundation: in the words of R. T. France, a leading Matthean scholar, “It is clear that this scriptural model has been important in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, but not so clear that it would have given rise to this narrative without historical basis.” Some scholars, such as Everett Ferguson, write that the story makes sense in the context of Herod’s reign of terror in the last few years of his rule, and the number of infants in Bethlehem that would have been killed — no more than a dozen or so — may have been too insignificant to be recorded by Josephus, who could not be aware of every incident far in the past when he wrote it.
The story’s first appearance in any source other than the Gospel of Matthew is in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (circa AD 150) which excludes the Flight into Egypt and switches the attention of the story to the infant John the Baptist:
And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.
The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (circa 395–423), who writes in his Saturnalia:
When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.
The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on December 29. Taking the narrative literally and judging from the estimated population of Bethlehem, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–1912) more soberly suggested that these numbers were inflated, and that probably only between six and twenty children were killed in the town, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas.
The “Coventry Carol” is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century performed in Coventry, England, as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.
- Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
- O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?
- Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.
- That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
Medieval liturgical drama recounted Biblical events, including Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. The theme of the “Massacre of the Innocents” has provided artists of many nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. It was an alternative to the Flight into Egypt in cycles of the Life of the Virgin. It decreased in popularity in Gothic art, but revived in the larger works of the Renaissance, when artists took inspiration for their “Massacres” from Roman reliefs of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs to the extent that they showed the figures heroically nude. The horrific subject matter of the Massacre of the Innocents also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with early modern ones during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation — Bruegel’s versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Habsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for Ancient Roman soldiers).
The 1590 version by Cornelis van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni’s early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents, in an unusual vertical format, is at Bologna. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. One version, now in Munich, was engraved and reproduced as a painting as far away as colonial Peru. Another, his grand Massacre of the Innocents is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Ontario. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years’ War.
The Childermass, after a traditional name for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is the opening novel of Wyndham Lewis’s trilogy The Human Age. In the novel The Fall (La Chute) by Albert Camus, the incident is argued by the main character to be the reason why Jesus chose to let himself be crucified — as he escaped the punishment intended for him while many others died, he felt responsible and died in guilt. A similar interpretation is given in José Saramago’s controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but there attributed to Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, rather than to Jesus himself. As depicted by Saramago, Joseph knew of Herod’s intention to massacre the children of Bethlehem, but failed to warn the townspeople and chose only to save his own child. Guilt-ridden ever after, Joseph finally expiates his sin by letting himself be crucified (an event not narrated in the New Testament). The Massacre is the opening plot used in the 2006 movie The Nativity Story.
The Cornish poet Charles Causley used the subject for his poem The Innocents’ Song, which as a folk song has been performed by Show of Hands with music by Johnny Coppin (on their album Witness); by Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham; and by Keith Kendrick and Lynne Heraud (as Herod on their album Stars in My Crown).
The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum (“On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi”).
It was one of a series of days known as the Feast of Fools, and the last day of authority for boy bishops. Parents temporarily abdicated authority. In convents and monasteries, the youngest nuns and monks were allowed to act as abbess and abbot for the day. These customs, which were thought to mock religion, were condemned by the Council of Basel in 1431. In medieval England, children were reminded of the mournfulness of the day by being whipped in bed in the morning; this custom survived into the 17th century.
In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, the day was a festival of inversion involving role reversal between children and adults such as teachers and priests, with boy bishops presiding over some church services. Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens suggest that this was a Christianized version of the Roman annual feast of the Saturnalia (when even slaves played “masters” for a day). In some regions, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started.
There was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of “Innocents Day” had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. Philippe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom, and describes the trepidation he felt when he had to inform the king of an emergency on the day.
Today, the date of Holy Innocents’ Day, also called The Innocents’ Day or Childermas or Children’s Mass, varies. It is on December 27 for West Syrians (Syriac Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church), January 10 for East Syrians (Chaldeans and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), while December 28 is the date in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (in which, except on Sunday, violet vestments are prescribed in Missals before 1961). In these latter Western Christian denominations, Childermas is the fourth day of Christmastide. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on December 29.
The tradition is that the youngest child “rules the day”. It is this child who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, and entertainment. To recall the blood of the martyrs, a food with a red color especially a pudding or ice cream with a red sauce such as raspberry is traditional.
In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, December 28 is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool’s Day in many countries. Pranks (bromas) are also known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes; alternatively, the pranksters are the “inocentes” and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin. One of the more famous of these traditions is the annual Els Enfarinats festival of Ibi in Alacante, Spain, where the inocentadas dress up in full military dress and incite a flour fight. In Trinidad and Tobago, Roman Catholic children have their toys blessed at a Mass.
Unsurprisingly, there are very few stamps commemorating the Massacre of the Innocents. I have three — one from the Faroe Islands (Scott #408 depicting the scream of Ramah from Matthew 2:18, issued on September 17, 2001) and two utilizing the same basic design issued by the Cook Islands as part of their Christmas issues for 1973. Scott #364-368) were released on October 30, 1973, depicting scenes taken from a 15th century book of hours: the 1-cent stamp portrays the Annunciation, the 5-cent pictures The Visitation, the Adoration of the Shepherds is seen on the 10-cent value, the Adoration of the Kings is on the 20-cent denomination and the 30-cent stamp depicts the Slaughter of the Innocents. These were printed using the photogravure process in sheets of 14 with a label, perforated 13 x 13½, as well as in a souvenir sheet containing one of each of the five designs plus a label (Scott #368a). On December 3, 1973, each of the designs were issued in semi-postal miniature sheets of one stamp each with the border picturing more of the decorated borders round the edges of the original illuminated pages (Scott #B34-B38). These each had a base denomination of 50 cents plus a 5-cent surtax which benefited school children. These were also printed using photogravure and perforated 13 x 13½.
I could find no mention as to which book of hours that the images for the Cook Islands Christmas stamps were sourced from, nor could I find an image that matched. The book of hours is a Christian devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. It is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. Like every manuscript, each manuscript book of hours is unique in one way or another, but most contain a similar collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. Illumination or decoration is minimal in many examples, often restricted to decorated capital letters at the start of psalms and other prayers, but books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures. Books of hours were usually written in Latin (the Latin name for them is horae), although there are many entirely or partially written in vernacular European languages, especially Dutch. The English term primer is usually now reserved for those books written in English. Tens of thousands of books of hours have survived to the present day, in libraries and private collections throughout the world.
The typical book of hours is an abbreviated form of the breviary which contained the Divine Office recited in monasteries. It was developed for lay people who wished to incorporate elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours typically centered upon the reading of a number of psalms and other prayers. A typical example contains the Calendar of Church feasts, extracts from the Four Gospels, the Mass readings for major feasts, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fifteen Psalms of Degrees, the seven Penitential Psalms, a Litany of Saints, an Office for the Dead and the Hours of the Cross.
Most 15th-century books of hours have these basic contents. The Marian prayers Obsecro te (“I beseech thee”) and O Intemerata (“O undefiled one”) were frequently added, as were devotions for use at Mass, and meditations on the Passion of Christ, among other optional texts.
The book of hours has its ultimate origin in the Psalter, which monks and nuns were required to recite. By the 12th century this had developed into the breviary, with weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings which changed with the liturgical season. Eventually a selection of texts was produced in much shorter volumes and came to be called a book of hours.
Many books of hours were made for women. There is some evidence that they were sometimes given as a wedding present from a husband to his bride. Frequently they were passed down through the family, as recorded in wills.
Although the most heavily illuminated books of hours were enormously expensive, a small book with little or no illumination was affordable much more widely, and increasingly so during the 15th century. The earliest surviving English example was apparently written for a laywoman living in or near Oxford in about 1240. It is smaller than a modern paperback but heavily illuminated with major initials, but no full-page miniatures. By the 15th century, there are also examples of servants owning their own Books of Hours. In a court case from 1500, a pauper woman is accused of stealing a domestic servant’s prayerbook.
Very rarely the books included prayers specifically composed for their owners, but more often the texts are adapted to their tastes or sex, including the inclusion of their names in prayers. Some include images depicting their owners, and some their coats of arms. These, together with the choice of saints commemorated in the calendar and suffrages, are the main clues for the identity of the first owner. Eamon Duffy explains how these books reflected the person who commissioned them. He claims that the “personal character of these books was often signaled by the inclusion of prayers specially composed or adapted for their owners.” Furthermore, he states that “as many as half the surviving manuscript Books of Hours have annotations, marginalia or additions of some sort. Such additions might amount to no more than the insertion of some regional or personal patron saint in the standardized calendar, but they often include devotional material added by the owner.” Owners could write in specific dates important to them, notes on the months where things happened that they wished to remember, and even the images found within these books would be personalized to the owners- such as localized saints and local festivities. By at least the 15th century, the Netherlands and Paris workshops were producing books of hours for stock or distribution, rather than waiting for individual commissions. These were sometimes with spaces left for the addition of personalized elements such as local feasts or heraldry.
The style and layout for traditional books of hours became increasingly standardized around the middle of the thirteenth century. The new style can be seen in the books produced by the Oxford illuminator William de Brailes who ran a commercial workshop (he was in minor orders). His books included various aspects of the Church’s breviary and other liturgical aspects for use by the laity. “He incorporated a perpetual calendar, Gospels, prayers to the Virgin Mary, the Stations of the Cross, prayers to the Holy Spirit, Penitential psalms, litanies, prayers for the dead, and suffrages to the Saints. The book’s goal was to help his devout patroness to structure her daily spiritual life in accordance with the eight canonical hours, Matins to Compline, observed by all devout members of the Church. The text, augmented by rubrication, gilding, miniatures, and beautiful illuminations, sought to inspire meditation on the mysteries of faith, the sacrifice made by Christ for man, and the horrors of hell, and to especially highlight devotion to the Virgin Mary whose popularity was at a zenith during the 13th century.” This arrangement was maintained over the years as many aristocrats commissioned the production of their own books.
By the end of the 15th century, the advent of printing made books more affordable and much of the emerging middle-class could afford to buy a printed book of hours, and new manuscripts were only commissioned by the very wealthy. The Kitab salat al-sawai (1514), widely considered the first book in Arabic printed using moveable type, is a book of hours intended for Arabic-speaking Christians and presumably commissioned by Pope Julius II.
As many books of hours are richly illuminated, they form an important record of life in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as the iconography of medieval Christianity. Some of them were also decorated with jewelled covers, portraits, and heraldic emblems. Some were bound as girdle books for easy carrying, though few of these or other medieval bindings have survived. Luxury books, like the Talbot Hours of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, may include a portrait of the owner, and in this case his wife, kneeling in adoration of the Virgin and Child as a form of donor portrait. In expensive books, miniature cycles showed the Life of the Virgin or the Passion of Christ in eight scenes decorating the eight Hours of the Virgin, and the Labors of the Months and signs of the zodiac decorating the calendar. Secular scenes of calendar cycles include many of the best known images from books of hours, and played an important role in the early history of landscape painting.
From the 14th century, decorated borders round the edges of at least important pages were common in heavily illuminated books, including books of hours. At the beginning of the 15th century these were still usually based on foliage designs, and painted on a plain background, but by the second half of the century colored or patterned backgrounds with images of all sorts of objects, were used in luxury books.
Second-hand books of hours were often modified for new owners, even among royalty. After defeating Richard III, Henry VII gave Richard’s book of hours to his mother, who modified it to include her name. Heraldry was usually erased or over-painted by new owners. Many have handwritten annotations, personal additions and marginal notes but some new owners also commissioned new craftsmen to include more illustrations or texts. Sir Thomas Lewkenor of Trotton hired an illustrator to add details to what is now known as the Lewkenor Hours. Flyleaves of some surviving books include notes of household accounting or records of births and deaths, in the manner of later family bibles. Some owners had also collected autographs of notable visitors to their house. Books of hours were often the only book in a house, and were commonly used to teach children to read, sometimes having a page with the alphabet to assist this.
Towards the end of the 15th century, printers produced books of hours with woodcut illustrations, and the book of hours was one of the main works decorated in the related metalcut technique.
In the 14th century, the book of hours overtook the psalter as the most common vehicle for lavish illumination. This partly reflected the increasing dominance of illumination both commissioned and executed by laymen rather than monastic clergy. From the late 14th century a number of bibliophile royal figures began to collect luxury illuminated manuscripts for their decorations, a fashion that spread across Europe from the Valois courts of France and the Burgundy, as well as Prague under Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and later Wenceslaus. A generation later, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy was the most important collector of manuscripts, with several of his circle also collecting. It was during this period that the Flemish cities overtook Paris as the leading force in illumination, a position they retained until the terminal decline of the illuminated manuscript in the early 16th century.
The most famous collector of all, the French prince John, Duke of Berry (1340–1416) owned several books of hours, some of which survive, including the most celebrated of all, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. This was begun around 1410 by the Limbourg brothers, although left incomplete by them, and decoration continued over several decades by other artists and owners. The same was true of the Turin-Milan Hours, which also passed through Berry’s ownership.
By the mid-15th century, a much wider group of nobility and rich businesspeople were able to commission highly decorated, often small, books of hours. With the arrival of printing, the market contracted sharply, and by 1500 the finest quality books were once again being produced only for royal or very grand collectors. One of the last major illuminated book of hours was the Farnese Hours completed for the Roman Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1546 by Giulio Clovio, who was also the last major manuscript illuminator.