28th of december
Feast of the Holy Innocents or Childermas; in Spain and Latin American countries the festival is celebrated with pranks (inocentadas), similar to April Fools’ Day (Catholic Church, Church of England, Lutheran Church)
The Massacre of the Innocents is the biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. In typical Matthean style, it is understood as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.'”
Since all the canonical evidence that such an event occurred is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament scholars such as Daniel J. Harrington have said that the historicity of the event is “an open question that probably can never be definitively decided.” Paul Maier reports that most recent biographers of Herod deny that the event occurred, while an article on the archaeology relating to the reign of Herod the Great in National Geographic Magazine opined that “Herod… is almost certainly innocent of this crime.”
The number of infants killed is not stated; the Holy Innocents, although Jewish, have been claimed as martyrs for Christianity.
The commemoration of the massacre of these “Holy Innocents”, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum (“On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi”).
Today, the date of Holy Innocents’ Day, also called The Innocents’ Day or Childermas or Children’s Mass, varies. The twenty-seventh of December is the date for West Syrians (Syriac Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church) and East Syrians (Chaldeans and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church). Twenty-eighth December is the date in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (in which, except on Sunday, violet vestments were worn before 1961, instead of red, the normal liturgical colour for celebrating martyrs). The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on 29 December.
In the 1962 Roman Catholic calendar, the violet vestments for Holy Innocents were eliminated (red used instead), and if December 28 fell on Sunday, this feast was commemorated on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. This was changed in a later revision of the Church calendar.
In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, the day was a festival of inversion involving role reversal between children and adults such as teachers and priests, with boy bishops presiding over some church services. This was perhaps a Christianized version of the Roman annual feast of the Saturnalia (when even slaves played “masters” for a day). In some regions, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started.
In addition, there was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of “Innocents Day” had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. This was presumably mainly observed by the better-off. Philippe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom, and describes the trepidation he felt when he had to inform the king of an emergency on the day.
In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, December 28 is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool’s Day in many countries. Pranks (bromas) are also known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes; alternatively, the pranksters are the “inocentes” and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin. Media like newspapers, radio, and TV often give fake content or distort news as well. One of the more famous of these traditions is the annual “Els Enfarinats” festival of Ibi in Alacant, where the inocentadas dress up in full military dress and incite a flour fight.