The Christmas story as handed down to us in text and pageant is about overcoming hardships and receiving gifts. Mary and Joseph overcome their own circumstances and doubts to receive a great gift. This is trumpeted by angels, celebrated by shepherds, marked out in the stars, and confirmed by wise men bearing gifts of their own.
However, in the background of all of this, there is a great menace that we’d rather not think about. Three days after Christmas, the Catholic Church observes the feast of the Holy Innocents, or Childermas. It memorializes a massacre of infants. That also is part of the Christmas story.
It may be true that there was “no room in the inn” the night of Jesus’s birth, but that was only a temporary bottleneck brought on by Roman census requirements. Eventually, the Holy Family found shelter more fit for humans in Bethlehem and stayed there. Perhaps Joseph – builder by trade and carpenter by tradition – put that roof over their heads.
The shepherds flocked to see the baby Jesus on the night of his birth in a stable. Several foreign star-gazing magi, or “wise men,” came years later, and they came to the house in Bethlehem.
Their arrival came after some wandering. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the magi’s travels brought them to the court of Herod the Great. They believed the appearance of a star in the night sky heralded something important.
In Jewish society of the time, such portents could have messianic implications. And indeed the religious authorities answered the magi’s query by reading a passage from the Micah scroll that was thought to speak to the messiah:
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel. (ESV translation)
That sent the magi off to Bethlehem. Herod bid these men of great standing happy travels. But first he did three things: 1) he determined by questioning them exactly when the star that provoked their wanderings first appeared in the night sky; 2) he implored them to “go and search diligently for this child”; and 3) upon discovery, he asked them to “bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
Herod’s words were a lie, we’ll learn shortly. The magi came and saw Jesus as a toddler in Bethlehem and they “fell down worshiped him.” We learn that Mary was there with Jesus at the time but we don’t know if he said anything to the men. He was very likely capable of it at that age.
The men gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense (perfume or incense), and myrrh (body oil). Biblical Archaeology Review notes that these same three items had been “among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.”
If that were the end of the story, we might be talking about Jesus of Bethlehem today, not Jesus of Nazareth. The wise men got wise to the possibility that Herod, vassal king of the Jewish territory under the authority of Rome, might not want to make the trip to “worship” potential competition. Instead, they “departed to their own country (likely Persia) by another way.” The Holy Family took the hint as well and fled to Egypt, where the Jewish diaspora was thick on the ground.
We the reader or viewer are supposed to breathe a sign of relief for them when we learn what comes next. Herod sends in the troops to try to snuff out a potential rival in the crib. Absent good intelligence that the magi were supposed to provide, Herod instead orders that every single male child in Bethlehem age two and under be put to the sword.
Novelist Henry Van Dyke tried to picture that in his book The Story of the Other Wise Man. “But suddenly there came the noise of a wild confusion and uproar in the streets of the village, a shrieking and wailing of women’s voices, a clangor of brazen trumpets, and a clashing of swords, and a desperate cry: ‘The soldiers! The soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children,’” Van Dyke wrote.
Van Dyke’s hero distracts us by using a ruby that had been meant as tribute to Jesus as a bribe to save the life of one of those boys. The child is but one exception to Herod’s vicious rule.
Many scholars collude with the storytellers here to change the subject from the massacre of innocents. They do it by doubting that it ever happened. Scholars note that it lacks independent verification and ask how such a thing could go unremarked outside of the Gospel of Matthew.
This is not the right place to relitigate the whole controversy. But it’s worth noting that while modern Bethlehem, situated in Palestinian territory on the West Bank, may be home to more than 25,000 people, Bethlehem was probably lightly populated in Jesus’s day.
It’s a safe bet that there were infanticides in other rural places 2,000 years ago that we have no records of today. In this case, we do know about the massacre. Some of us are just determined to doubt the source.
Such an act was in keeping with the well-known character of Herod himself. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People notes that the king “had two important attributes: absolute loyalty to Rome, and political prowess, which he exercised with extraordinary brutality by extirpating all signs of opposition, even within his own family.”
In historical fact, Herod, “did not hesitate to execute several of his own sons whom he suspected of plotting against him, as well as his favorite wife.” The Roman emperor Augustus even said of the man, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
This was what the Holy Family was up against in the Christmas story: not just cold, scarcity, or bureaucratic irksomeness on par with a few exceedingly bad trips to the DMV; but also a murderous evil that was willing to do well-nigh anything in the furtherance of its own power.
Mary and Joseph weren’t naïve about such things. They fled to Egypt, a place where Herod couldn’t reach them and stayed there until he died of an undiagnosed putrefying disease that contemporaries referred to simply as “Herod’s Evil.”
But some of the other families in Bethlehem at the time were not so lucky. The Catholic Church, and a few other churches, remembers them every year not on the day celebrating Christ’s birth but still as part of Christmastide. The massacre is said to have fulfilled the words of the dourest prophet, Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.
Jeremy Lott contributed to the book Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford).