No Comment — December 28, 2007, 12:02 am

The Terrible Fourth Day of Christmas

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.

rubens-massacre

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

Bee-Brained

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Mothers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Facing the Furies

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated additional hours Americans would spend stoned annually if marijuana were legal in most states:

30,000,000,000

BirdLife International announced the discovery of a new species, a seed-eating finch with blue spots, that was discovered living in bamboo thickets on Carrizal Island, Venezuela; unfortunately, the bird’s only known habitat was destroyed in the construction of a new dam.

Three bodies were tossed from a low-flying plane in the Sinaloa state of Mexico.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today