Christmas is all things beautiful: consolation, awe, gratitude, and joy.
Yet during this “most wonderful time of the year,” the Church invites us to ponder and remember the violent deaths of some of our most glorious martyrs: St. Stephen, St. Thomas Becket, and the Holy Innocents.
Does the celebration of their feast days somehow put a damper on things? Does it tarnish the joy of the season?
That's definitely not the motivation behind the celebration of these feasts.
The Church is seeking not to sadden us, but to reveal and re-emphasize the timeless work of the Newborn King: He entered a world that refused to receive Him to redeem a people who had lost His grace.
The martyrs shed their blood for Him and for us. They remind us of the suffering that ends in glory.
The Massacre of the Innocents by François Joseph Navez
A Surprising Celebration?
During the Octave of Christmas, we celebrate a particular feast day: the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Also known as Childermas, it commemorates the children slaughtered by the barbaric King Herod whose goal was to kill the Christ Child and preserve his own power. The Holy Innocents died in Christ's stead so that He could die in ours.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.”
The Massacre of the Innocents by Guido Reni
Why Celebrate Such a Feast?
There is evil and sadness in every martyrdom, but eternal glory awaits the martyr.
I can’t imagine a more gruesome slaughter than that of little children—the shock and horror of it all, the anguish of the little ones and their parents.
Why do we celebrate something so painful and appalling?
In many of the great stories of history—including salvation history—virtuous souls sacrificed their lives for a higher good, allowing heroes to accomplish great works for mankind. These precious souls fulfilled their singular purpose. They did not die in vain.
We consider the Holy Innocents to be some of the first martyrs of the Church. When they sacrificed their lives for a name they did not know, they shed their blood just as He would. The Holy Innocents died because of Him and for Him. They gave their precious lives so that God’s plan could be fulfilled in Him.
The Collect for Holy Mass on this feast day says that the Innocents proclaimed Christ "not in speech, but by death alone." In this way, they became our timeless benefactors in the Faith.
While our Christmas joy is tinged with sadness on this particular day, we celebrate their glorious place in heaven and their incredible gift to us all.
Ways to Commemorate this Feast
Tell children an age-appropriate version of the story, and explain why this is a special feast. There are no “small” souls, and these pristine souls made a way for Jesus.
Explain to the children you love that they can please Jesus and honor the Holy Innocents by being obedient to their parents, loving their siblings, sharing, and being kind, especially today. Perhaps there is a work of mercy or act of charity they can perform in honor of the Innocents, who are the special patrons of children.
If you are a parent, godparent, aunt, or uncle, or have children special to you through another relationship, you can commemorate this day by blessing them, in person or from afar. If you don’t have children whom you can bless, you can pray for children in need, especially all children persecuted today for the Faith.
Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt
A Blessing for Children
It is a tradition to give a blessing to children on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. EWTN says that, "After morning Mass it is becoming customary in some communities for the children to gather around the crib in the parish church for the special blessing of children by the parish priest. If this is not possible, then the family gathers in the evening around the crib, and the father leads everyone present in the Our Father.
If you are unable to receive a priest's blessing for your children at this time, families can participate at home. Here's how.
The father of the family begins the Our Father prayer, and everyone joins in.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All respond: And let my cry come unto You.
Then the father prays:
Let us pray.
O Lord Jesus Christ, once you embraced and placed your hands upon the little children who came to you, and you said, “Let the little children come unto me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, and their Angels always see the face of my Father!” Look now with Fatherly eyes on the innocence of these children, and the faith of their parents, and bless them this day.
Signing the forehead of each child with the Cross, the father continues:
In your grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for you, loving you, fearing you, keeping your Commandments. Then they will surely come to their destined home, through you, Savior of the World, who lives and reigns forever and ever.
Everyone responds, “Amen.”
A Final Reflection
Herod was an evil man, but ultimately, he was powerless against the Infant King of Glory. In the great plan of our salvation, only God the Father could dictate the perfect timing of Christ’s sacrifice. His enemies pursued Him from the womb to the tomb, but He fulfilled His purpose with the help of the Holy Innocents. Theirs was a hidden martyrdom—but their immaculate lives bear witness to His glory as they reside in Heaven with Him forever. The only offense of the Holy Innocents was coming into the world at the same time as the Infant Jesus. They looked like Him, and for that, they suffered death.
What about us? How closely do we resemble Christ? Do we “look like Him" spiritually?
How do others recognize Christ in us? Can they see Him at all in the way we speak, act, serve, and love?
Together, let’s aspire to “look like Christ'' in honor of the Holy Innocents. In gratitude for their incomparable gift, let’s live to sacrifice for the coming of His Kingdom.
May our sacrifices be rewarded with triumph and glory, if not for ourselves, then for those who follow.