New Brunswick

Why Dec. 28 is the unluckiest day of the year

Forget Friday the 13th. You might want to stay inside the rest of today — and not just to avoid the cold.

Evil associations can be traced back to medieval folklore, infant mortality, and a 'madman' emperor

The gory, evil associations of Dec. 28 are immortalized in the painting The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni, depicting the biblical massacre of infants on that day. (Wikipedia)

Forget Friday the 13th. According to ancient folklore, Dec. 28 is the unluckiest day on the Christian calendar.

At one time, the day known as the Feast of the Holy Innocents or, alternatively, as Childermass, was considered cursed — "so much so," according to Francis Kildale's 1855 Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, "that the day of the week on which it falls is marked as a black day for the whole year to come."

"No important affair is taken in hand on Childermass Day, and the sailors are heedful not to leave their port in the way of beginning a voyage under any consideration."

The painting Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, indicates why the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents 'certainly wasn't a good day for children.' (Wikipedia)

In the 1886 text Legends and Superstitions of the County of Durham, William Brockie warns, "it is very unlucky to begin any work whatever on this day." 

In Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, it is noted that "this day is of most unlucky omen. None ever marries on a Childermas Day."

Children, it was said, had the most to fear on the 28th of December.

"Up until the seventeenth century," writes Paul Hawkins in Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters, "it was believed that ritually beating a child with a stick at Childermass brought the beater good luck and reminded the child of both King Herod's viciousness and Jesus's suffering."

No weddings, no travel, and, um, ritual child-beating? How Dec. 28 got such an ominous reputation has to do with folklore, infant mortality, and a paranoid madman emperor who lived in 73 B.C.

'He was a madman'

In the Catholic church, three feast days are marked immediately after Christmas, according to Msgr. Brian Henneberry, pastor of St. Pius Parish and the vicar general and chancellor of the Diocese of Saint John.  

After the feast of St. Stephen on Dec. 26, and feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist on Dec. 27, comes Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec, 28.

Childermass commemorates the slaughter of all the young male children of Bethlehem at the command of King Herod in an attempt to destroy Jesus — part of the Christmas story as told in Matthew 2:16-18.

The Herodium, built by the 'madman' King Herod near the West Bank town of Hebron, is pictured in an undated photo made available by the Israeli Government Press Office. ((Avi Ohayon/GPO/Associated Press))

King Herod, said Henneberry, was a "very paranoid man," who according to first-century historians not only killed one of his wives and several of his children, but he also gave orders when he was dying that "people from every town and village in his territory would be held together in one of his prisons and slaughtered upon his death, so that there would be tears in every town of Judea," said Henneberry.

"He was a madman."

As a result of the association with King Herod, Henneberry said, Dec. 28 "certainly wasn't a good day for children."

According to Dr. Gary Waite of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, who teaches about early modern European religion, witchcraft and the devil, it's possible high rates of medieval infant mortality fuelled a popular sense of horror associated with the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

"In the medieval era, every household would have experienced the death of a child," Waite said. "The feast of the Holy Innocents would have spoken to an experience that almost all families shared."

While the church itself would not have officially held the day as unlucky, "it was very, very difficult for the Church to combat folk traditions," Waite said.

Reminder of death

Catholics still observe Dec. 28 with prayers and readings referencing King Herod's slaughter of babies as recorded in Matthew. Priests, too, wear special clothing.

"Typically, during the whole Christmas season, we wear white," Henneberry said, "but today we wear red to commemorate the feast of these early child martyrs." 

Death is still a very unfortunate human reality. Innocent people are still put to death — and this is a day to remember that.- Brian Henneberry, monsignor, vicar general and chancellor of the Diocese of Saint John.  

Superstition aside, the day is an opportunity for reflection: "a reminder that not a whole lot has changed in our world: it's not as safe for as many people as we would like to believe," Henneberry said.

"Death is still a very unfortunate human reality. Innocent people are still put to death — and this is a day to remember that."

But today, most people are no longer aware of the date's evil associations.

"I have to laugh, because my parents were married on the 28th of December in 1950," Henneberry said. "They lived together almost 50 years, before my mother died, and brought five children into the world. 

"So it worked out for my parents, at least."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a born and raised Saint Johner, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.