I wonder if the popularity of the Coventry Carol today indicates that it expresses something people don’t find in the usual run of joyful Christmas carols – this song of grief, of innocence cruelly destroyed. The Feast of the Holy Innocents (Childermas, as it was known in the Middle Ages) is not an easy subject for a modern audience to understand, and the images which often accompany it in medieval manuscripts, of children impaled on spears, are truly horrible. But they are meant to be; they are intended to disgust and horrify, and they’re horrible because they’re not fantasy violence but all too close to the reality of the world we live in. Children do die; the innocent and vulnerable do suffer at the hands of the powerful; and as this carol says, every single form of human love, one way or another, will ultimately end in parting and grief. Every child born into the world – every tiny, innocent, adorable little baby – however loved, however cared for, will grow up to face some kind of sorrow, and the inevitability of death. Of course no one wants to think about such things, especially when they look at a newborn baby; but pretending otherwise, not wanting to think otherwise, doesn’t make it any less true.
Medieval writers were honest and clear-eyed about such uncomfortable truths. The idea that thoughts like these are incongruous with the Christmas season (as you often hear people say about the Holy Innocents) is largely a modern scruple, encouraged by the comparatively recent idea that Christmas is primarily a cheery festival for happy children and families.
Read it all.