“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, the Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea’, they replied…Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’…Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route…When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi”.
- The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-5, 7, 12, 16.
The so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day itself and ending on “Twelfth Night” on January 5th, were usually a period of feasting and merriment. However, December 28th is a particularly somber day within this festive season. According to Christian tradition, December 28th marks the day in which King Herod the Great (an agnomen which was definitely not fitting with his character), the pro-Roman ruler of the kingdom of Judea, ordered the deaths of all male children who were 2 years old or younger. Christians refer to this event as “the Massacre of the Innocents”. There is no way of knowing how many babies and toddlers were put to the sword on Herod’s orders, but it surely must have been in the hundreds.
A scene from a Medieval French manuscript, dated from 1200 to 1260, depicting soldiers murdering infants. Le Roman de la Rose, par Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meun (MS. Fr. 25526). Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Paris, France. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000369q.image#.
However, some historians claim that this event never actually happened, since no mention of it is made in the other three Gospels and it is not mentioned in any historical texts. Some state that this references the Egyptian pharaoh’s orders to kill all of the Jewish children in his kingdom, which is reported in the Book of Exodus. Other people are firm in their convictions that King Herod’s shocking command actually occurred and that the butchery did indeed take place. Until there is some evidence of this in ancient documents, we will likely never know for certain.
One of the earliest known Christmas carols, dated to 1534, was about the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this song are given by a mother who weeps for her dead child, killed on Herod’s orders. By extension, it could also be the mournful farewell given by any mother to her dead child. Child mortality rates were extremely high prior to modern times, and people living in those days would, unfortunately, have been all too familiar with children unexpectedly dying from sickness, plagues, accidents, murder, and war.
Today on December 28th, the day known as “Children’s Mass”, we remember and pray for all of the children who died this past year.