Holy Innocents Day or 'Childermas'

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Words from ‘The Coventry Carol’. Part of the women’s chorus from the 14th Century Coventry Mystery Play.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how hard the life of a mediaeval peasant was. The festivals of the church must have been a welcome relief from grinding toil, even if it meant spending a lot of time on your knees in prayer. The Twelve Days of Christmas were the longest period in the year when work was reduced in favour of worship and it’s no coincidence that they coincide with a low time in the agricultural calendar. The clergy however were still working hard. The vicars, deacons, choir boys, servers and vergers worked through the Holy Offices, every day of the Christmas season and eventually they too were entitled to a little time to let their hair down.

On the days immediately following Christmas Day the clergy held their own private feasts. These culminated on Holy Innocents’ Day or ‘Childermas’, which is when the boys and men of the church choir traditionally ate their festive meal. The date of Childermas depends on which Christian Tradition you follow, but it can be the 27th 28th or 29th December and in the cathedrals of the western tradition it was sometimes marked by the appointment of a Boy Bishop. The Feast of the Circumcision on 1 January was a similarly celebrated with a Feast of Fools. It’s all part of the topsy turvey nature of the time of year.  As we have seen before the Church adopted pre-Christian practices and gave them a religious aspect in order to sanitise them.

(The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Breughel the Younger) 

The election of the Boy Bishop varied from cathedral to cathedral. In some, the boys themselves elected their bishop but in others, especially as time went on, the bishop was elected by the clergy. A boy from the choir would be dressed in cope and mitre and carrying a bishop's crook he would be ‘ordained’ in a mock ceremony.

 (13th century tomb of a Boy Bishop in Salisbury Cathedral.)

The ceremonies attracted the peasantry to church so they might glimpse the boys but also to see the clergy who were displaced and required to sit in the back pews. After the service the choir boys would have their Christmas feast.

At York the Boy Bishop and his fellow choirboys toured the diocese, visiting monasteries and houses of the nobility where they were given money and presents. In most cathedrals the Boy Bishop preached a sermon and three of these sermons survive, including one preached at Gloucester. The theme of this sermon was how wicked boys were, even the boys in the choir school. The ‘Bishop’s’ conclusion was that parents and schoolmasters were to blame!

The tradition of the Boy Bishop lasted in Britain until the late 1500s and rather longer on the continent. It is still revived from time to time.

I’ve made a ginger syllabub. It felt right. The recipe comes from an old copy of ‘Homes and Garden’s but other than that I can’t attribute it.

Ginger Syllabub

284 carton double cream
100ml ginger wine
60g golden caster sugar
2 pieces stem (crystallized) ginger finely chopped + 2 tbs syrup from the jar
100g gingernut biscuits

Whip the cream with the sugar and wine until stiff then stir in the ginger syrup.
Put the biscuits in a plastic bag and crush until they are coarse crumbs. (A food processor risks making them too fine for my taste)

Layer the cream and crumbs in four glasses and decorate with the chopped ginger. Chill for a couple of hours before serving.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.


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