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:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2015

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
Photograph by the author
Article
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Article
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Article
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:

240

Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today