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

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Monday was Christmas.

Today is Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

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.

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!

We could sing it on every street corner.

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.

Holy Innocents roundThere is sometimes attributed (wrongly) 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]

Literally: Whom the impiety of Herod dragged from their mothers’ breasts; who rightly are called the flowers of the martyrs, whom, having sprung up in the midst of the cold of infidelity, bursting forth as the Church’s first jewels, a certain frost of persecution wasted.


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.

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 waste” or “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 cold heat of persecution brought forth flowers before their day.

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 3:30, completely 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. Orual says:

    Love it! As a first-time grandmother of a 2 week old baby boy, this carol resonates. The newer version is especially beautiful. Thank you, Father.

  2. Chiara says:

    I *love* the Coventry Carol, even though it is so very sad, remembering the Holy Innocents and their inconsolable mothers. How very appropriate, and also so very sad, that the British used this in their grief during the Blitz, when so many innocents were lost, and those who were left had no homes or food. Yet another reason to pray for those in distress. Peace and Christmas blessings to all here.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Apponius has something similar to say, in Book 4 of Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles.

    “The flowers have appeared in the land” (Sgs. 2:12) – Because [flowers] are necessary for adorning the royal hall of such a Spouse. In place of the poison-filled caltrop burrs of wickedness, through the striking down of the infants [ie, the Holy Innocents], “flowers” of innocence “appear in the land,” which God had cursed because of the First-Formed [Adam]. Crowned by such martyrs, He is made known to Judaea by the fore-announcement of the Magi. In such [martyrs], the Church receives her first ornaments of comeliness.

    “Flores apparuerunt in terra”: Ad tanti quippe sponsi ornandam aulam regalem, necessario, pro venenosis nequitiae tribulis, innocentiae flores per infantum allisionem apparuerunt in terra, cui maledixerat in Protoplasto Deus. Quibus testibus coronatus, Magorum praenuncio, inducitur in Judaeam; in quibus Ecclesia primum decoris ornamenta suscepit.

  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for this!

    Our Vulgate concordance did not have any form of ‘decoquo’ and none of the forms of ‘coquo’ seemed related – though I wonder if Daniel 14:26 is ever used in reference to the Harrowing of Hell? I found a number of forms in the easily-searchable 1922 edition of Apicius’ De re coquinaria at Project Gutenberg (now to find/figure out what they are recipes for…). The 1879 online Lewis and Short is full of interesting things, including “a medicinal drink”, “to ripen”, and, from Cicero’s De Oratore, “suavitatem habeat orator austeram et solidam, non dulcem et decoctam, a severe and solid, not a luscious and mellow sweetness”.

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