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It seems that in most households in America where Christmas is celebrated, it occurs on December 25, and the tree is stripped and ready to be hauled off by the garbage men the following weekend. December 26, of course, is the day for the return of unwanted gifts. This marks Christmas celebrated as consumerism; a justification for boosted retail sales.
For centuries before the commercialization of Christmas, however, it was a spiritual holiday that was anticipated for the four preceding Sundays of Advent, and then it was followed by eleven further days, ending on January 6. Each of those days had a specific significance in terms of the liturgical calendar, and popular customs also arose with respect to them, of which the Twelfth Night might be the most significant in the English-speaking world, a day for revels. But alas, none of this could be successfully converted to a rite of consumerism (and anyway, the urge was to get all those accounts settled and sales booked by year’s end), so it all seems to be fading away.
Today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, or in the older English usage, Childermas. Most Americans only have a vague understanding of what it’s about. King Herod, we learn in Matthew 2:16, ordered that all infant males in Bethlehem be put to death. He was apparently inspired by word of the approach of the three magi, seeking an infant king in that city, and fearful of a plot against his throne. The story does not appear in any other gospel text, nor in any contemporaneous history, which causes many historians to express skepticism about it.
Nevertheless, the commemoration of this horrible act of slaughter was incorporated into the Christmas season, and it evolved a number of traditions. In the Middle Ages it figured in Christmas pageants, especially a famous one in Coventry, surrounded by what may be the most hauntingly beautiful of the English carols—dating to the sixteenth century at least—the Coventry Carol. It also figured in some cruel practices in England—as histories of the Coventry Carol note that this day was one on which children were whipped to remind them to be mournful.
This hardly fits into modern celebrations which focus only on the uplifting notes of the religious tradition, leaving those seemingly more cruel behind. What purpose can be found for this commemoration today? It interjects cruelty and inhumanity at a time which should be marked by peace and festivity. Some modern Christian writers try to transform the incident into a polemic against abortion. But of course, the legend does not speak to the unborn, and this understanding has no historical basis.
I have a different understanding of this story and its function in the Christmas cycle. We think of course of the innocent children. But the actor in this story is King Herod the Great, a figure with a disputed historical legacy, but certainly attached to much cruelty. This story is a reminder of the tendency of those who hold temporal power to engage in corrupt deeds, even horrific crimes, to retain that power. Christ of course made no claim on Herod’s crown, nor did he challenge the rule of the Romans. But in the thinking of the legend of the innocents, even the suggestion of an alternate authority was unbearable to Herod, an unrighteous ruler. The martyrdom of the innocents reminds us of this all too human failing. It reminds us never to repose too much trust and faith in those who hold temporal power, and not to confuse their acts with justice. In the end justice must be understood divorced from the power and ambitions of individual political figures, who being only human will, as Albertus Magnus reminds us, often stray from the path of righteousness.
Otherwise, of course, you can just associate the fourth day of Christmas with four calling birds—which makes much less fuss.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”