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Holy Innocents' Day

Holy Innocents' Day is observed by Western churches on December 28, and by the Eastern Orthodox Church on December 29. It is a Christian feast day remembering the young children killed in and near Bethlehem under the orders of Herod the Great. Known as the "massacre of the innocents," it was first recorded in the Bible in Matthew 2:16-18.

According to the Bible, after Jesus was born, Magi came to Jerusalem and asked Herod the Great where the king of the Jews was to be born. Herod asked the chief priests and teachers of the law where it was to be, and they told him that according to prophecy it was to happen in Bethlehem. Herod told the Magi to report back to him after they found the child, so that he could go worship him as well. In reality, Herod did not want to worship Jesus, but wanted to know where he was so he could kill him, as he was afraid the prophecy meant Jesus would replace him as king. The Magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and went home by another route. Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt after an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

The Biblical account says that Herod ordered the killing of all male children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. The only evidence of it occurring from the time is the account from Matthew, and many biographers of Herod the Great question if the event ever happened. It didn't appear in another source until 150 CE, in the book of James, and it wasn't mentioned in a secular text for over two more centuries.

This being the case, it wasn't mentioned in a popular history book, Antiquities of the Jews, written in about 94 CE. The book mentions many of Herod's other wrongs—including the murdering of his mother-in-law, his second wife, and three of his sons. Similarly, Herod also arrested important citizens and ordered their execution. This was all part of his "reign of terror." Given these examples, it isn't inconceivable that Herod would have murdered the babies of Bethlehem.

Some scholars have said that since the population of Bethlehem was about 1,000 at the time of the purported event, only about twenty children could have been killed. It is possible that this took place and was not recorded in contemporaneous texts because it was overshadowed by Herod's other misdeeds. The twenty or so babies who may have been killed is a far lower number than the thousands who were traditionally believed to have been killed in the event.

The early Christian church saw these babies as the first martyrs, even though they were Jewish. Holy Innocents' Day was likely first celebrated as part of Epiphany. It wasn't until the fifth century that it became its own festival. During the Middle Ages, role reversals took place between children and adults on the day, and "boy bishops" were given authority over their parents. At this time, children were also reminded of the sadness of the day by being whipped in bed. The tradition lasted into the seventeenth century. Fasting and mourning also took place in Rome during the Middle Ages. Today the day is observed as a religious feast day.

How to Observe Holy Innocents' Day

Observe the day by reading the account of the "massacre of the innocents" in Matthew Chapter 2 and share the story with others. If you have children, you could reverse roles with them for the day and let them make the decisions, just as was done on the day during the Middle Ages. You could also bless your children, as in the Catholic custom. Another idea you could try, which some have done to celebrate the day, is to drink milk and eat soft foods similar to those that babies eat, such as pudding and hot cereal.

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