28 Dec – Childermas – The Holy Innocents: “They were the Church’s first blossoms”

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Today is Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

O sisters too, How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling,
For whom we do sing,
By by, lully lullay?

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

Herod, the King, In his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

That woe is me, Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting
Nor say nor sing
By by, lully lullay!

The “Coventry Carol”, a lullaby of mothers to doomed children, dates to the 16th century. It was part of a Mystery Play, “The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors”, about chapter two of the Gospel of Matthew.  The carol is about the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The carol came to greater popularity after the BBC broadcast it at Christmas of 1940, after the Bombing of Coventry: it was sung in the ruins of the bombed Cathedral.

We could sing it on every street corner.

Holy Innocents roundThere is sometimes attributed to St. Augustine a quote about the Holy Innocents with some beautiful imagery.  Here it is… mind you, attributed to the Doctor of Grace:

These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers”; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.

Lovely, no?  Augustine didn’t say that.  It was Caesarius of Arles who preached:

Quos herodis impietas lactantes matrum uberibus abstraxit; qui iure dicuntur martyrum flores, quos in medio frigore infidelitatis exortos velud primas erumpentes ecclesiae gemmas quaedam persecutionis pruina decoxit.  [s. 222, 2 in CCL 104]

Some interesting things are going on in the Latin.  First, you need to know that gemma isn’t just “gem”, but can also be “bud, blossom”.    In Latin there are two related verbs, lacto, lactare, “to contain milk, to give suck”, and lacteo, lactere, “to suck milk, to be a suckling”.  However, in all periods they swap meanings.  We could use one English verb for both, “to nurse”. This is also why we for the famous line “out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings” both “ex ore infantium et lactentium” and “ex ore lactantium”.  By the way, if you like this drilling into Latin, try Latin Synonyms, with Their Different Significations, and Examples Taken from the Best Latin Authors, by M. Jean-Baptiste Gardin Dumesnil, translated into English, with additions and corrections, by the Rev. J. M. Gosset. US HERE – UK HERE Decoquo is “to reduce by boiling”.  I found an interesting reference in Suetonius how Nero made a icy-cold drink decoction, a decocta.  Pliny uses decoctum as a medicinal drink.  Note the juxtaposition of the heat indicated in decoquo and the cold of frost.  The heat of persecution brought forth flowers before their day.  Here is a literal rendering:

Whom the ungodliness of Herod dragged as nursing babies from their mothers’ breasts; who rightly are called the flowers of martyrs, whom the frost of persecution cooked up, grown up in the midst of the cold, bursting forth as the first buds of the Church.

Here is the Collect from the 1962 Missale Romanum:

Deus, cuius hodierna die praeconium Innocentes Martyres non loquendo, sed moriendo confessi sunt: omnia in nobis vitiorum mala mortifica; ut fidem tuam, quam lingua nostra loquitur, etiam moribus vita fateatur.

O God, whose public heralding the Innocent Martyrs professed this very day not by speaking but by dying; mortify in us every ill of vices; so that (our) life might confess Your Faith, which we speak with our tongue, also by (our) morals.

Look at the not-so-subtle change made to the Collect by the cutters and pasters who glued together the Novus Ordo:

Deus, cuius hodierna die praeconium
Innocentes Martyres non loquendo,
sed moriendo confessi sunt:
da, quaesumus, ut fidem tuam,
quam lingua nostra loquitur
etiam moribus vita fateatur.

Can you spell “bowdlerize”?


O God, whose public heralding the Innocent Martyrs
professed this very day not by speaking but by dying;
grant, we implore, that (our) life might confess Your Faith,
which our tongue declares,
also by (our) morals

That lingua nostra could, I suppose, be ablative, but it is probably the nominative subject of loquitur.  I originally swerved that into “which we speak with our tongue”.  There is a strong temptation to reconstruct these clauses when rendering it into English.


O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed
and proclaimed on this day,
not by speaking but by dying,
grant, we pray,
that the faith in you which we confess with our lips
may also speak through our manner of life

Did the translator not get that fateor is deponent?  The subject is vita, no? Accusative fidem is the object, not the subject.

What a mess.


the Holy Innocents offered you praise
by the death they suffered for Christ.
May our lives bear witness
to the faith we profess with our lips

I’ll stick with the older Collect in Latin, thank you very much.

St. Thomas Aquinas dealt with the question of how the Innocents could be considered martyrs if they didn’t yet have use of their free will so as to be able to choose death in favor of Christ and if they were not baptized. The Angelic Doctor answered that God permitted their slaughter for their own good and that their slaying brought them the justification and salvation that would also come from baptism.

This was a “baptism of blood”. In their deaths they were truly martyrs. And they were indeed for Christ, since Herod, fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, killed them from ill-will for the new-born Christ.

And a modern reworking of Lully Lulla Lullay by Philip Stopford which might quite simply make you choke up and then, at the descant about 3:15, lose it.

Like it?


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Adorazione_dei_Magi_by_Gentile_da_Fabriano_Predella Flight into Egypt sm

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mary Jane says:

    I listened to the modern re-working of the Carol and couldn’t help crying.

    Would that we didn’t have modern-day “Herods”.

  2. THREEHEARTS says:

    Therefore Fr, according to your thinking, and rightly so. It should be and outside every day outside abortion clinics

  3. THREEHEARTS says:

    I missed I apologize “sang outside every abortion clinic, my carelessness

  4. pelerin says:

    Thank you for the answer as to why this was called the Coventry Carol. I am English and I never knew that!

  5. majuscule says:

    A prolife group that I know of is caroling outside the local Planned Parenthood tonight (and it has evening hours so it will be open). They bring a lighted Nativity display and they pray and sing in honor of Jesus, who was born on Christmas Day, and in remembrance of the aborted babies who are not allowed to be born — our modern day Holy Innocents.

  6. jaykay says:

    As regards “decoquo”, to reduce by boiling, that reminds me of the saying attributed to St. Lawrence, martyred by being grilled alive:”versate, iam cocta est”.

    I do love the Coventry Carol, and that version sung by Westminster is the one I usually have sung, from the “Oxford Book of Carols” arranged by David Willcocks, who died last year. It’s become the standard over on this side of the pond. The Kenneth Leighton setting is very fine also. I had never heard the Philip Stopford setting (nearly said Stanford!). Thank you Father.

  7. Alexey says:

    For another haunting performance of the Stopford Coventry Carol:


    There is something especially gripping having boys singing the Carol, whose ages are not too distant from those of the original Holy Innocents.

    Note the cool-as-a-cucumber descanter right around 3:36

  8. Semper Gumby says:

    Sublime- both Westminster’s and Stopford’s. Well said majuscule.

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