Tuesday 28 December 2010


Today's feast of the Holy Innocents is known in English as Childermas. This feast is a real liturgical curiosity. Certainly very ancient (going back in the West to at least 485), this feast is pegged in different traditions to either the "Sanctoral" or the "Seasonal" cycle of the year. While the Latin church keeps this feast on the 28th December, the Greeks on the 29th and the Syrians and Assyrians on the 27th, the Armenians on the Monday after the second Sunday of Pentecost, as they maintain that the Holy Innocents were killed fifteen weeks after the Nativity.

Another curiosity is the liturgical colour used for the feast. If the feast falls on a weekday, Violet is used. This stems from the Roman argument that since the Innocents were killed before they were able to attain the beatific vision, they should not be commemorated as other Martyrs, but in honour of the women of Bethlehem, the Gloria and Alleluia are not sung at the Mass. In the Gallican rites of France and parts of Germany, this distinction was not made and Red was used along with the Gloria and Alleluia. Therefore, in the Old Roman Rite, Violet is used if the feast falls on a weekday and Red is used if it falls on a Sunday (and on the Octave day, when the Gloria and Alleluia are also sung), a rare example of compromise between Roman and local uses.

In England, there was a custom of not working on whatever day of the week the feast fell on for the rest of the year until the next Childermas. It would be logical to assume that this custom was only followed by the very wealthy.


  1. There is also the more recent tradition of hiding the bambino under the straw of the Christmas crib on this feast lest he be found by the soldiers of King Herod.

  2. Aaah. That's much better than covering him with tinsel. I was told that the origin of tinsel was the dew on a spider's web which covered the cave where the holy family sheltered. Is that really so?

  3. Having been greatly irritated by children on a miserable train journey yesterday I find myself having a certain degree of sympathy with King Herod.

    I am sure the Holy Family bought their Christmas decorations from Brown Thomas.

  4. Don't know about tinsel do understand that the Feast of the Holy Family is the only day on which mince pies should have a pastry lid on to hide the sweetmeat in the crib from the soldiery. At other times they should be mince tarts to display the contents of the manger. Perhaps a lattice of pastry is permissible to catch a glimpse of new-born Saviour through the window of the stable. The first thing I do with any mince pie (other than today) is to remove the offending lid - and eat it!

  5. My Carmelite friends tell me that in the good old days on the feast of the Holy Innocents the novices were allowed to play all manner of tricks on the novice master and the senior brethren with impunity : remove furniture to the roof, hide sandals (discalced), short sheet the beds etc. I enjoyed the thought that these antics were to make up for the play and fun missed by the murdered children.

    Fr David Allen SSC