Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, nowadays a minor holiday within the Christmas season, but at one time of greater significance. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is found in Matthew 2:16–18, although the preceding verses form the context:
When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.
The massacre is not reported outside of the Gospel of Matthew and other later Christian writings based on that gospel. The Roman Jewish historian, Josephus, does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD), which reports many of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering his own sons.
The story’s first appearance in any source other than the Gospel of Matthew is in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James of c.150, which excludes the Flight into Egypt and switches the attention of the story to the infant John the Baptist:
And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.
The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395-423), who writes in his Saturnalia:
When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.
I have not the slightest doubt that Matthew’s account is pious fiction. To accept it would mean accepting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which I have already thrown into serious doubt, and that magi journeyed from the east following a star, stopped by Herod’s palace, then went on to Bethlehem where they instantly recognized the messiah. This “event” is not attested in any other historical source. It’s clearly a polemic to buttress prophesy which in this case is not about the messiah at all.
The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints puts the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on 29 December. If you are into this kind of thing – estimating numbers for something that never happened – contemporary archeology sets the number of inhabitants of Bethlehem at the time at around 1,000 meaning that the number of children killed would have been no more than 20.
While we are on the subject of historicity, why did Mary and Joseph head to Egypt (except to satisfy Matthew’s need for symbolism)? Surely they would have been just as safe in Galilee, returning like others after the census (as Luke recounts in Luke 2:39). Did Jews make a habit of running to Egypt when things looked dodgy in Israel? How did they support themselves? Who took them in? Did anyone in Egypt speak Aramaic or did they have to learn a new language? The whole story is not credible.
The “Coventry Carol” is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. This haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. Here’s a version that is acceptable, but not great. Best I could find after a considerable search. Although the text is mournful, I find the tempo here too slow, and the setting feeble. It’s impossible, it seems, to find a contemporary musician capable of managing the free flowing measures (or lack of them), and wandering tonality. Short of that, I would prefer it be sung in unison, a capella, as it was in the 16th century. I’ve trained choirs to sing it that way in the past – fighting my music director most of the way.
In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, Holy Innocents 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. 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 Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, El Día de los Santos Inocentes is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool’s Day in other 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 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 and egg fight.
In parts of Spain it is customary to eat huesos de santos (saints’ bones), also commonly eaten on All Saints (Nov. 1). They are not difficult to make, but most people buy them. You can make them completely from scratch by making your own marzipan, but at minimum I buy the marzipan and simply make the filling. As illustrated here, you can dip the huesos in chocolate if you wish.
Huesos de Santos
½ lb (250 g) marzipan
2 oz (50 gr) granulated sugar
1 oz (25 ml) water
2 egg yolks
I find that rolling marzipan works best on a marble board, but you can also use a regular pastry board or counter top. Dust the surface with powdered sugar and roll the marzipan out to about ¼ inch thick. Then cut it into 1 x 1½ inch rectangles. Make long tubes out of the rectangles by rolling them around the handle of a wooden spoon or similar rod that has been liberally dusted with powdered sugar. Press the long sides of the tube together and carefully ease it off the rod. This will take a few trial runs to do it so that you don’t deform the tube. If you mess up, re-roll and try again. Place the finished rolls on a tray and chill.
Beat the egg yolks in a bowl or top of a double boiler. Bring water in the bottom of the double boiler or deep saucepan to a gentle boil. In another pan bring the water and sugar to a boil to form a syrup. While whisking the yolks vigorously, pour the syrup into the eggs. Slow pouring and constant whisking are critical, otherwise you will scramble the eggs. Then, place the egg and syrup mixture over the boiling water and continue to stir it until it thickens substantially.
Let the yolk filling cool a little and, using a pastry bag, fill each marzipan tube from both ends.