Christmas celebrations continue in Bethlehem with the celebration of the Feasts of the Holy Innocents.
Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, is a holiday commemorating the massacre of the children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus. These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs. The Feast is celebrated since the 6th century in the Western Christian churches on December 28 and in the Eastern churches on December 29.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents is annually celebrated in the town of Bethlehem, the place where the lives of the Innocents were taken 2000 years ago.
In the times of the imperious Roman client King Herod the Great (74 BCE – 4 BCE), Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. The Wise Man from the East, following the bright star of Bethlehem and wishing to greet Jesus, made a visit to King Herod in Jerusalem. They asked: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Hearing that, the possessive and greedy Herod was frightened of losing the kingdom. He wished to trick the Wise Man and asked them to bring the newborn to him, so he may also pay him homage. However, the Magi discovered the real intentions of the Roman king and chose an alternative return route to avoid meeting him.
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 and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Matt. 2:16
Herod’s soldiers killed many little children, but fortunately did not find Jesus and his family. It is believed that they found shelter in one of Bethlehem’s grottos – nowadays called the Milk Grotto, where the beautiful Milk Grotto Chapel commemorating this event can be seen today. Later the Holy Family escaped to Egypt.
Chapel(s) of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem
A chapel dedicated to the Holy Innocents is situated in one of numerous grottos under the Church of the St. Catherine of Alexandria, beside the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. According to a tradition, it is a burial place of the children and infants whose lives were taken by Herod in search of Christ.
Interestingly, there is another cave containing bones and sculls of small children, and is known as the Holy Innocents, situated under the Nativity Church, beside the Greek Orthodox belfry. The Greek Orthodox priests are responsible for the care of this place.
Both places carry much symbolic meaning, and are a reminder to commemorate and remember these children.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
Throughout the centuries and continuing still, Christian art, poetry, music and popular piety have drawn on the memory of the Holy Innocents with sentiments of tenderness and sympathy.
This year (2011 A. D.), on the 27th of December, Bethlehemites and Christians of other nations gathered in the concert hall of the Bethlehem’s Convention Palace situated next to the Salomon Pools. The feast was also very popular among the Christians from Nazareth and Galilee, who travelled on organized buses to the celebration.
The symphonic-catechetical celebration was entitled “The Suffering of the Innocents” an was prepared by the famous composer and iconographer Kiko Arguello from Spain. He dedicated the concert to all the people suffering from any physical or mental persecutions.
The orchestra consisted of approximately 180 musicians and choir members and was directed by Maestro Pau Joroquera. Their music was an amazing melodic experience of harmonious sounds reflecting the suffering of the children killed by Herod, as well as their mothers – from whom the great gift from God was brutally taken away.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal was the honoured guest of the event. He led the mass and prayers. In his homily, which he said three times, first in Arabic, then Italian and later Spanish, the Patriarch made a very important point that even though Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for the sins of man, he was resurrected and lives in heaven beside God. Those words were followed by a symphony of the orchestra entitled “Ressurecti”.
The event ended with a prayer “Our Father” and blessings from the Patriarch.
Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.