All Jewish boys are required by Jewish law to be circumcised on the eighth day following their birth; the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, still celebrated by many churches around the world, accordingly falls on January 1. Luke 2:21 (King James Version), reads: “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” The first reference to the survival of Christ’s severed foreskin comes in the second chapter of the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel which contains the following story:
- And when the time of his circumcision was come, namely, the eighth day, on which the law commanded the child to be circumcised, they circumcised him in a cave.
- And the old Hebrew woman took the foreskin (others say she took the navel-string), and preserved it in an alabaster-box of old oil of spikenard.
- And she had a son who was a druggist, to whom she said, “Take heed thou sell not this alabaster box of spikenard-ointment, although thou shouldst be offered three hundred pence for it.”
- Now this is that alabaster-box which Mary the sinner procured, and poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wiped it off with the hairs of her head
Foreskin relics began appearing in Europe during the Middle Ages. The earliest recorded sighting came on December 25, 800, when Charlemagne gave it to Pope Leo IIIwhen the latter crowned the former Emperor. Charlemagne claimed that it had been brought to him by an angel while he prayed at the Holy Sepulchre, although a more prosaic report says it was a wedding gift from the Byzantine Empress Irene. Pope Leo III placed it into the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran basilica in Rome with other relics. Its authenticity was later considered to be confirmed by a vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden. David Farley says the foreskin was then looted during the Sack of Romein 1527. The German soldier who stole it was captured in the village of Calcata, 47 km north of Rome, later the same year. Thrown into prison, he hid the jeweled reliquary in his cell, where it remained until its rediscovery in 1557. Many miracles (freak storms and perfumed fog overwhelming the village) are claimed to have followed. Housed in Calcata, it was venerated from that time onwards, with the Church approving the authenticity by offering a ten-year indulgence to pilgrims. Pilgrims, nuns and monks flocked to the church, and “Calcata [became] a must-see destination on the pilgrimage map.” The foreskin was reported stolen by a local priest in 1983.
According to David Farley, “Depending on what you read, there were eight, twelve, fourteen, or even 18 different holy foreskins in various European towns during the Middle Ages.” In addition to the Holy Foreskin of Rome (later Calcata), other claimants included the Cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay, Santiago de Compostela, the city of Antwerp, Coulombs in the diocese of Chartres, as well as Chartres itself, and churches in Besançon, Metz, Hildesheim, Charroux, Conques, Langres, Fécamp, Stoke-on-Trent, Calcata, and two in Auvergne.
One of the most famous prepuces arrived in Antwerp in the Brabant in 1100 as a gift from king Baldwin I of Jerusalem, who purchased it in the Holy Land in the course of the first crusade. This prepuce became famous when the bishop of Cambray, during the celebration of the Mass, saw three drops of blood blotting the linens of the altar. A special chapel was constructed and processions organised in honour of the miraculous relic, which became the goal of pilgrimages. In 1426 a brotherhood was founded in the cathedral “van der heiliger Besnidenissen ons liefs Heeren Jhesu Cristi in onser liever Vrouwen Kercke t’ Antwerpen”; its 24 members were all abbots and prominent laymen. The relic disappeared in 1566, but the chapel still exists, decorated by two stained glass windows donated by king Henry VII of England and his wife Elizabeth of York in 1503.
The abbey of Charroux claimed the Holy Foreskin was presented to the monks by Charlemagne. In the early 12th century, it was taken in procession to Rome where it was presented before Pope Innocent III, who was asked to rule on its authenticity. The Pope declined the opportunity. At some point, however, the relic went missing, and remained lost until 1856 when a workman repairing the abbey claimed to have found a reliquary hidden inside a wall, containing the missing foreskin. The rediscovery, however, led to a theological clash with the established Holy Prepuce of Calcata, which had been officially venerated by the Church for hundreds of years.
According to David Farley, in 1900, the Roman Catholic Church resolved the dilemma by ruling that anyone thenceforward writing or speaking of the Holy Prepuce would be excommunicated. Farley also says that the Second Vatican Council later removed the Day of the Holy Circumcision from the Latin church calendar, although Eastern Catholics and Traditional Roman Catholics still celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord on January 1. In reality, it was more than two years before 11 October 1962, the date when the Second Vatican Council began, that a 25 July 1960 decree of Pope John XXIIIenacted a wide-ranging revision of the General Roman Calendar, which included changing the name of the 1 January feast from “Circumcision of the Lord and Octave of the Nativity” to “Octave of the Nativity”, with no change of the Gospel reading about the circumcision of the child Jesus.