The Practice of Swathing Infants
Luke 2:12
And this shall be a sign to you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

When the Gospels were translated in our venerable version, it did not occur to any of the translators that the word "swaddling clothes" would ever be an obsolete word, needing to be illustrated by a description of ancient or foreign customs. And yet so it is at this day. The usage which is alluded to in this word is to us entirely strange. Few things among the old world customs, I venture to say, strike some of us as more outlandish — more pitiable even — more entirely removed from our notions of good care and right training — than the swaddling of little helpless babies, as it is practised, for instance, in Germany. I do not believe an American mother can generally pass one of those poor little Wickelkinder, strapped down on its back to a pillow by spiral after spiral of convoluted bandages, without longing to apply the scissors and let the little prisoner go free. And yet it is only a few generations since this way of treating new-born children prevailed, with variations and aggravations, in all nations, even the most civilized. We owe our own emancipation, in this land and century, from this and other artificial traditions, to no other single influence so much as to a remarkable book published in the middle of the last century by a citizen of Geneva — the "Emile" of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It speaks thus of the universally prevalent treatment of an infant child as it had continued to his day: "Scarcely does the child begin to enjoy the liberty of moving and stretching its limbs, when it is placed anew in confinement. It is wound in swaddling clothes, and laid down with its head fixed, its legs extended, its arms at its sides. It is surrounded with clothes and bandages of all sorts that prevent it from changing its position. It is a good thing if they do not even draw the bands so tight as to hinder respiration, and if they have the foresight to lay it on its side to avoid the danger of strangulation ... The inaction and constraint in which the child's limbs are confined must necessarily disturb the circulation, hinder the child from gaining strength, and affect its constitution... Is it possible that such cruel constraint can fail to affect the character of the child, as well as its physical temperament? Its first conscious feeling is a feeling of pain and suffering. It finds nothing but hindrances to the motions which it craves. More wretched than a criminal in irons, it frets and cries. The first gifts it receives are fetters; the first treatment it experiences is torture." Such was the practice of a hundred years ago in the highest families of the most civilized country in the world. In many lands, partly owing to this very protest, the practice is better now. But in the slow-going East the common practice of the nursery is no better, and it is probably no worse than it was nineteen hundred years ago. But it is worse than anything we ever see or hear of ill this part of the world. In fact, it comes nearer to the binding of an Indian papoose to a board, than to anything that we are accustomed to see in the families of Christendom. Once wound around with these swathing-bands, sometimes with an addition of fresh earth against the skin, and packed in their cradles like a little mummy in its coffin, the poor little babies are expected to stay there, all cries and complaints notwithstanding; they are not removed by their mothers even for such necessary occasions as to be fed. I have heard pitiful stories told by missionaries' wives, and by missionary physicians, in the East, of the sufferings of little infants in consequence of the obstinate persistence of parents in a usage which we clearly see to be so unreasonable and unnatural.

(Leonard W. Bacon.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

WEB: This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough."

The Fitness of the Sign
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