From the Chambers’ Book of Days
This festival, which is variously styled Innocents’ Day, The Holy Innocents’ Day, and Childermas Day, or Childermas, has been observed from an early period in the history of the church, as a commemoration of the barbarous massacre of children in Bethlehem, ordered by King Herod, with the view of destroying among them the infant Saviour, as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is one of those anniversaries which were retained in the ritual of the English Church at the Reformation.
In consequence probably of the feeling of horror attached to such an act of atrocity, Innocents’ Day used to be reckoned about the most unlucky through-out the year, and in former times, no one who could possibly avoid it, began any work, or entered on any undertaking, on this anniversary. To marry on Childermas Day was especially inauspicious. It is said of the equally superstitious and unprincipled monarch, Louis XI., that he would never perform any business, or enter into any discussion about his affairs on this day, and to make to him then any proposal of the kind, was certain to exasperate him to the utmost. We are informed, too, that in England, on the occasion of the coronation of King Edward IV, that solemnity, which had been originally intended to take place on a Sunday, was postponed till the Monday, owing to the former day being in that year the festival of Childermas. This idea of the inauspicious nature of the day was long prevalent, and is even yet not wholly extinct. To the present hour we understand the housewives in Cornwall, and probably also in other parts of the country, refrain scrupulously from scouring or scrubbing on Innocents’ Day.
In ancient times, the ‘Massacre of the Innocents‘ might be said to be annually re-enacted in the form of a smart whipping, which it was customary on this occasion to administer to the juvenile members of a family. We find it remarked by an old writer, that:
‘it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day Morning, that the memory of Herod’s murder of the Innocents might stick the closer, and in a moderate proportion to act over the crueltie again in kinde.’
Several other ancient authors confirm the accuracy of this statement. The idea is naturally suggested that these unfortunate ‘innocents’ might have escaped so disagreeable a commemoration by quitting their couches betimes, before their elders had risen, and we accordingly find that in some places the whole affair resolved itself into a frolic, in which the lively and active, who managed to be first astir, made sport to themselves at the expense of the lazy and sleepy-headed, whom it was their privilege on this morning to rouse from grateful slumbers by a sound drubbing administered in lecto.
In reference to the three consecutive commemorations, on the 26th, 27th, and 28th of December, theologians inform us that in these are comprehended three descriptions of martyrdom, all of which have their peculiar efficacy, though differing in degree. In the death of St. Stephen, an example is furnished of the highest class of martyrdom; that is to say, both in will and deed. St. John the Evangelist, who gave practical evidence of his readiness to suffer death for the cause of Christ, though, through miraculous interposition, he was saved from actually doing so, is an instance of the second description of martyrdom—in will though not in deed. And the slaughter of the Innocents affords an instance of martyrdom in deed and not in will, these unfortunate children having lost their lives, though involuntarily, on account of the Saviour, and it being therefore considered ‘that God supplied the defects of their will by his own acceptance of the sacrifice.’