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Childermas: In Medieval England, Children Were Beaten On December 28

Medieval History | December 28, 2019

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem by Matteo di Giovanni, depicting the biblical massacre of infants on that day. (Wikipedia)

While the days of knights, peasants, and castles grow in popularity on Netflix, the people of medieval Europe weren't nearly as excited about their living situation. Disease, injustice, and crushing brutality were simply a way of life, even for those who couldn't begin to pronounce any of those words. Every year on December 28, in a tradition known alternately as Childermas and the Feast of the Holy Innocents or Innocents' Day, children were beaten in commemoration of an even more violent event.

The terrible King Herod. (aleteia.org)

Childermas Began With King Herod

Way before the first reindeer paused and out jumped good old Santa Claus, a little boy was born in Bethlehem. You might have heard of him. Around the same time, Herod, King of Judaea, heard a prophecy that foretold the coming of a new king who would end Herod's reign of cruelty. Rather than take this as a sign that some serious meditation on whether brutalizing his subjects was really in everyone's best interests was in order, he ordered the murder of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, no one is totally sure exactly when Jesus was born, so it's not clear when this event was supposed to have taken place. In fact, many historians doubt that it happened at all. Still, the people of medieval Europe were dead set on some child-abusing, so December 28 was declared the ironically named Innocents' Day.

Over time, the gory tradition improved. (medjugorjemalta.blogspot)

Once A Not-So-Bad Celebration

The day was once part of a larger celebration that took place over the new year called the Feast of Fools. During this time, parents gave up their authority to the church, and all manner of strange celebrations occurred. In some towns, one lucky boy would be chosen to act as bishop for a day, which was basically like being mayor back then. Unfortunately, this was still before the mass production of chocolate, so the extent of their revelry was pretty limited. Meanwhile, the youngest nuns and monks in their respective orders were named abbess and abbot for the day, presumably enacting ruler-slapping revenge on their usual superiors.

The hall of King Herod. (factinate)

When Did Kids Start Getting Whipped On December 28?

Over time, as a couple of plagues and general misfortune soured the cultural mood, December 28 was rebranded as a day to remind children of King Herod's (supposed) cruelty. According to The Irish Times in 1928, one undated account reads:

It hath been a custom, and yet is, 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 cruelties in kind.

Some folklorists are of the opinion that the practice of beating children may have also been "practiced as a remnant of an old, pre-Christian custom intended to drive out evil spirits, ill health, or other harmful forces." Whatever the case, people were mighty fond of the tradition, practicing it well into the 1700s. December 28 eventually picked up a connotation of bad luck, so couples avoided getting married and workers avoided beginning construction of a new building on that day. Edward IV even refused to be crowned on December 28.

Another depiction of the "Massacre of Innocents (aleteia.org)

Slightly Less Terrible As Time Goes On

As time has taken us further and further away from the supposed brutal killing of children at the whim of a mad man, the traditions have changed slightly. In central Europe, it became custom for young boys to go door-to-door whipping girls with branches and twigs. Apparently, the practice was viewed "as a means of imparting health, fertility, abundance, and good luck," though it's unclear if the girls felt particularly blessed. Meanwhile, in Belgium, it became a day for children to collect the keys for every door in the house early in the morning and lock the adults into whichever room they wandered into first, refusing to let them out until the children were offered a sufficient bribe. Whatever the practice for whatever the purpose, we can all agree that our holiday traditions have gotten much better over time.

Tags: christianity | holiday | Jesus | King Herod | medieval europe | picasso self portraits | traditions

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!