Massacre of the Innocents

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Holy Innocents
0 La Vierge a l'Enfant entouree des saints Innocents - Louvre - (2).JPG
First Martyrs
BornVarious, presumably close to the birth of Jesus
Bethlehem, Judea
Diedc.7–2 BC
Bethlehem, Judea (martyred by King Herod the Great)
Cause of death Infanticide
Venerated in
Canonized Pre-Congregation
  • 27 December (West Syriac)
  • 28 December (Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Communion)
  • 29 December (Eastern Orthodoxy)
  • 10 January (East Syriac)
  • Foundlings
  • Babies
  • Children's choirs [1]

The Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents is a myth [2] recounted in the Nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:1618) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children who are two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. [3] Some Christians venerate the Holy Innocents as the first Christian martyrs, [4] but modern scholarship finds no evidence that it happened outside the passages in Matthew. [5]


The Feast of the Holy Innocents, also known as Childermas, is celebrated in the Western Christian Churches on 28 December, the fourth day of Christmastide. In Eastern Christianity, the feast is celebrated on various dates, depending on the denomination. [6]

Biblical narrative

The Gospel of Matthew tells how the Magi visit Jerusalem to seek guidance as to where the king of the Jews has been born; King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to return to him and report, but they are warned in a dream that Herod wishes to find the child and kill him, and do not do so. Matthew continues:

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.

Matthew 2:16 [7]

This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15) (Jeremiah 31:14 in the Hebrew Bible): "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:1718). The relevance of this to the massacre is not immediately apparent, as Jeremiah's next verses go on to speak of hope and restoration. [8]

History and theology

The account of the massacre of the innocents in Matthew is the second invocation of the story in the Bible, and draws on its Jewish roots from the narrative of Moses' escape from Pharaoh's edict in The Exodus. Mainstream scholars do not accept the historicity of the Matthew account. [2] [3] [9]

The story of the massacre is found in no gospel other than Matthew, nor is it mentioned in the surviving works of Nicolaus of Damascus (who was a personal friend of Herod the Great), nor in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews , despite his recording many of Herod's misdeeds, including the murder of three of his own sons. [4] The early 5th-century account of Macrobius—that "on hearing that the son of Herod, king of the Jews, had been slain when Herod ordered that all boys in Syria under the age of two be killed, [Augustus] said, 'It's better to be Herod's pig than his son'"—has been discounted as extra-biblical evidence for the event due to its later authorship, possible influence by the gospel narrative, and the confused nature of the account. [10] In view of the lack of independent confirmation that the event ever occurred, the most likely explanation for the story is that it is folklore inspired by Herod's reputation. [9]

The author appears to have modeled the episode on the biblical story of Pharaoh's attempt to kill the Israelite children in the Book of Exodus, as told in an expanded version that was current in the 1st century. [11] 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' father and mother are warned in a dream that the child's life is in danger and act to save him. [12] Later in life, after Moses has to flee, like Jesus, he returns when those who sought his death are themselves dead. [12]


The Greek liturgy asserts 14,000 Holy Innocents, while an early Syrian list of saints asserts 64,000. Coptic sources assert 144,000 and that it took place on 29 December. [13] The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907–1912, recognizing that Bethlehem was too small a town to provide such numbers, reduced the victims to between six and twenty children in the town, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. [lower-alpha 1]

In Christian art

Medieval liturgical drama recounted Biblical events, including Herod's slaughter of the innocents. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, performed in Coventry, England, included a haunting song about the episode now known as the Coventry Carol. The Ordo Rachelis tradition of four plays includes the Flight into Egypt, Herod's succession by Archelaus, the return from Egypt, as well as the Massacre, all centered on Rachel weeping in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. These events were likewise in one of the medieval N-Town Plays.[ citation needed ]

The "Coventry Carol" is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors . The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed. [14] The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the melody dates from 1591. [15] The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.[ citation needed ]

The 17th century Dutch Christmas song O Kerstnacht, schoner dan de dagen , while beginning with a reference to Christmas Night, is about the Massacre of the Innocents. In 1974, the Dutch progressive rock band Focus recorded the first two verses of the song for their album Hamburger Concerto .[ citation needed ]

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. [16] The horrific subject matter of the Massacre of the Innocents also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with the brutalities of the early modern period, during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation  Bruegel's versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Habsburg double-headed eagle. [17]

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. [18] 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. [19]



The communion motet for the Feast of the Holy Innocents is the text from Matthew 2:18 (citing Jeremiah 31:15) Vox in Rama. This was set polyphonically by a number of composers of the renaissance and baroque, including Jacob Clemens non Papa, Giaches de Wert, and Heinrich Schütz (in German).

Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed an oratorio, Caedes sanctorum innocentium, H.411, for soloists, chorus, two violins, and continuo (1683–1685).

Feast day

Dates by denomination

Today, the date of Holy Innocents' Day, also called the Feast of the Holy Innocents, or Childermas or Children's Mass,[ clarification needed ] varies.


The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, [23] [lower-alpha 2] first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations[ clarification needed ] were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: 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"). [lower-alpha 3]

Catholic medieval traditions

From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius of Bethlehem was venerated at Brantôme, Dordogne as one of the purported victims of the Massacre. [24]

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. [25] 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. [26]

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. [27]

Contemporary traditions in Western Christianity

In denominations of Western Christianity, such as Catholicism and Lutheranism, some Christians attend Mass on Childermas to remember the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. [6] [28]

In England, the memorial is referred to as Childermas or Children's Mass in which "Children are given a blessing; they sing in the choir and take on other special roles in the church service." [29]

In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, [30] 28 December 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 Alacant, where the inocentes dress up in full military dress and incite a flour fight. [31]

In Trinidad and Tobago, Catholic children have their toys blessed at a Mass. [32]

Roman Rite before and after 1955

In the Roman Rite prior to 1955, a unique feature of this feast was the use of liturgical elements ordinarily ascribed to penitential days—including violet vestments, the omission of the Gloria, and the substitution of a Tract in place of the Alleluia—unless the feast fell on Sunday, in which case the rubrics required the feast to be celebrated as on its octave day, with red vestments, Gloria, and Alleluia. The octave of this feast was suppressed by Pope Pius XII in 1955, with the feast now celebrated using the features formerly ascribed to its octave day, a practice reinforced by the 1960 Code of Rubrics.

See also


  1. Holweck 1910 states "The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse 14:3. Writers who accept the historicity of the episode reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town. Joseph Knabenbauer brings it down to fifteen or twenty (Evang. S. Matt., I, 104), August Bisping to ten or twelve (Evang. S. Matt.), Lorenz Kellner to about six (Christus und seine Apostel, Freiburg, 1908)".
  2. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. iii.16.4) and Cyprian (Epistle 56)
  3. Prudentius, Leo, and Fulgentius are noted in Smith & Cheetham 1875, pp. 839ff.

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  1. "Patron Saints A-Z".
  2. 1 2 George, Arthur (2020). The Mythology of America's Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae. Springer International Publishing. p. 218. ISBN   978-3-030-46916-0 . Retrieved 20 March 2024. Most New Testament scholars do not regard the stories of the magi, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt as historical,136 so in this sense they are myth. But they are also mythical in the sense of conveying sacred truths.
  3. 1 2 Litwa, M. David (2019). "Chapter 8: Child in Danger, Child of Wonder". How the Gospels Became History Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. Yale University Press. pp. 118–120. ISBN   9780300249484.
  4. 1 2 Clarke 2003, p. 22.
  5. Maier 1998, pp. 170–171.
  6. 1 2 Crump, William D. (16 December 2022). The Christmas Encyclopedia, 4th ed. McFarland. p. 263. ISBN   978-1-4766-8790-2.
  7. Matthew 2:16
  8. Clarke 2003, p. 23.
  9. 1 2 Magness 2021, p. 126.
  10. Maier 1998, p. 187.
  11. Lincoln 2013, p. 44.
  12. 1 2 Brown 1978, p. 11.
  13. Mina 1907, pp. 300-.
  14. "The Coventry Carol". The version from Bramley and Stainer (1878)
  15. Studwell 1995, p. 15.
  16. "Getty Collection". 7 May 2009. Archived from the original on 5 December 2005. Retrieved 15 June 2012.
  17. A winter landscape with the Massacre of the Innocents, Sotheby's, 7 December 2005
  18. "Reni's painting at the Web Gallery of Art". Retrieved 15 June 2012.
  19. The Massacre of the Innocents in Cuzco Cathedral is clearly influenced by Rubens. See CODART Courant , December 2003, 12. (2.5 MB pdf download)
  20. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  21. "Day Four: December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  22. troparia, All; saints, kontakia · All lives of. "Lives of the Saints".
  23. Smith & Cheetham 1875, pp. 839–.
  24. Wasyliw 2008, p. 46.
  25. Holweck 1910.
  26. Blackburn & Holford-Strevens 1999, pp. 537–538.
  27. de Commynes 1972, pp. 253–254.
  28. "Feast of the Holy Innocents". Lutheran Campus Ministry in Madison. 28 December 2020. Retrieved 29 December 2023.
  29. Pennoyer, Greg; Bevis, Beth (1 September 2015). God With Us: God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Reader's Edition). Paraclete Press. ISBN   978-1-61261-819-7.
  30. B. A., Seattle Pacific University. "It's No Joke: Dec. 28 Is for Pranks in Spanish-Speaking Countries". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
  31. BBC News report of the 2010 festival.
  32. ""Feast of Holy Innocents", Trinity and Tobago Newsday, December 30, 2103". 30 December 2013. Retrieved 16 April 2018.


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