Catholicism: What is the Feast of the Holy Innocents?

It’s not a holy day of obligation. It’s not a moveable feast. As a matter of fact, many Catholics don’t know exactly what it is. I didn’t learn about the Feast of the Holy Innocents until several years after becoming a convert.

Who Were the Holy Innocents?

Like many people, when I first heard the term Holy Innocents, I assumed it must refer to a group of adult martyrs. According to The Sacred Heart, the Holy Innocents were the infants slaughtered under King Herod’s order to kill all male babies aged two and under once he learned of Christ’s birth.

Holy Innocents is celebrated on December 28 as a feast in the Catholic and some other liturgical churches. It sits between Christmas Day and Epiphany (January 6) on the Church calendar. In many parishes, it’s marked by a special liturgy.

History of the Feast

The description of Herod’s rage and his order to kill all male children in Bethlehem who were two and younger appears in the Bible at Matthew 2:16, Aquinas & More reports. The Old Testament scripture said to foretell the massacre is at Jeremiah 31:15.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the murdered infant boys as its first martyrs. Doctrine holds that because they did not know Jesus, they died in innocence and in His place.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Greek sources suggest that Herod killed around 14,000 boys. However, some medieval authors speculate the number to be as great as 144,000.

Experts cannot pinpoint the exact date of the slaughter. Greeks celebrate the feast on December 29, while Syrians and Chaldeans mark the occasion on December 27. Armenians celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents on May 11 because they believe that the martyrdom occurred 15 weeks after Christ’s birth.

The Latin Church recognized the feast somewhere between the end of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Relics of the Holy Innocents

Historians believe that the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents are at St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. This church is one of four great ancient basilicas in the city. Built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century, it sits above the grave of St. Paul.

Pope Sixtus V transferred a portion of the relics to Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest Roman Catholic Marian church in Rome. Among other churches that preserve bodies they hold to be some of the Holy Innocents are St. Justina at Padua and the cathedrals of Lisbon and Milan.

In England, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is known as Childermas.


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