Although scholars debate on whether the event actually happened, there's no denying the appeal of the story. A powerful man, doing whatever it takes to stay in power, including the massacre of children? It certainly resonates with anyone who's ever felt powerless in their lives — or, at least, anyone who cares about children.
At any rate, in the Philippines where roughly 80 percent of the population is Catholic, Niños Inocentes is considered an important day — but not for the reasons you might think.
Innocent = Gullible
If Westerners have April Fools' Day, Filipinos have Niños Inocentes. On this day, you have to be extra careful, because some Filipinos will take advantage of your "innocence" to play pranks on you.
The most common prank involves money. It's said that when someone borrows from you on December 28, you shouldn't expect to have it back any time soon (or ever). That's why Filipinos are strongly discouraged from lending money — or anything else — on December 28.
Another prank involves phone calls. If you happen to be right in the middle of something, and the phone suddenly rings, don't pick it up. Otherwise, you'll hear "Happy Innocents Day!" on the other end, and you'll belatedly realize that you just wasted a few seconds of your life for nothing.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Some pranksters pretend to be visitors to a house, and gobble up the meals meant for genuine visitors. To the pranksters, this is all in good fun. To the recipient of the prank, this is just plain annoying.
Luckily, Pinoys don't always take such a glib view of Niños Inocentes.
In Memory of the Innocents
Because the Holy Innocents are considered the first martyrs who died for Christ, Catholic churches offer special masses for them on December 28. If you attend one of these masses, expect the priest to make a sermon related to Niños Inocentes, or warn parishioners not to forget the real meaning of the feast. Parishioners are also encouraged to bring their infants for baptism during this day.
In Maloco, Aklan, people have their own take on the Holy Innocents story. They hold a play called Niños Inocentes, where King Herod succeeds in kidnapping the baby Jesus for ransom. But when he's given a sack of corn, he gives the child back without much ado. Talk about a funny (yet somewhat heartwarming) twist!
Niños Inocentes Around the World
Like Filipinos, Catholics in Spain and Hispanic America also play pranks on their neighbors on December 28. In these countries, the pranksters are known as bromas or inocentadas, while their victims are known as inocentes. It's said that the inocentes shouldn't get angry at the inocentadas, since the latter technically didn't commit any sin. Also, local news outlets will distort facts in good fun, so if you're taking a vacation in any of those countries on December 28, remember to take all the news you hear with a grain of salt.
Of the Niños Inocentes celebrations in Spain, one of the most famous is Els Enfarinats. Celebrated in Ibi, a town in Alicante, Spain, participants dress like members of the military and stage a coup d'état. At 8 A.M., they "take" Ibi under the slogan "New Justice," and after an hour, they hold an "election" to decide the Mayor of Els Enfarinats. For the rest of the day, the Els Enfarinats make a show of their might by instigating flour/egg fights, as well as fireworks. By 5 P.M., the Els Enfarinats give up their "authority" to give way to Dansà.
In Trinidad and Tobago, where Catholics make up a significant portion of the population, children have their toys blessed by the priests at the local church.
In the English mystery play "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors," the events from the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and told her she would conceive) up to the Massacre of the Innocents are portrayed. The play also includes the "Coventry Carol," a song performed by the mothers of the Innocents, who lament the fate of their children.
The Feast of the Innocents, Today and Tomorrow
Whether the Massacre of the Innocents happened or not, it's a powerful story that will undoubtedly get told by generations to come. Celebrate it any way you will, but never forget that the Innocents gave up their lives so that one Messiah can change the world forever.