What are Swaddling Clothes and What is Their Significance?

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

What are swaddling clothes and what is their significance?

There are many comments offered on various websites about this. Some are purely allegorical but others are drawn from Jewish custom at the time and the service these shepherds rendered for the priests of the temple. I will relate for you the Jewish custom and an interesting speculation concerning who the shepherds actually were in relation to the Passover sacrifice.

Swaddling clothes, according to every commentator I have read, were bands of cloth, probably cotton, not really “clothes” as in a garment. The custom of the East was to wrap the new-born in these strips of cloth after washing the body and anointing it in powdered salt. First the baby was laid on its back diagonally on a square sheet of this cotton cloth. After folding the cloth around the infant the shroud was tied with the ribbons. Then the baby was wrapped, limbs unextended, with the “swaddling cloth.” This binding prevented the baby from hurting himself by kicking or scratching or rolling over. Our Lady likely would have seen this done in Nazareth, but, if not there, she surely would have seen it done by the midwives at the birth of John the Baptist.

An interesting speculation was offered by one blog commenter (who was taught it in a Bible class) that the priests of the temple would set aside strips from their used, embroidered, liturgical vestment to be given as a gift to their new-born Davidic king. If this was true, then perhaps Zachary, who was a priest, and Elizabeth gave these strips to Mary, the Mother of their God and King, for His Holy Birth. Our Lady would have had these precious bands with her for the census trip to Bethlehem, the city of David, in anticpation of the coming of the Christ Child. This is certainly a pious thought to consider.

Madonna and Child, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (source)

Now, how does Saint Luke relate the message of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem? “And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.  And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger” (2:10-12).

And this shall be a sign unto you? How could swaddling clothes a “sign” if all babies were wrapped in such? A baby in a “manger” yes, that would be a sign, but what of these bands? There is a tradition that the shepherds, who in the hillside were not too far from Jerusalem, provided the “lambs without blemish” for the temple sacrifice at Passover. That first new-born lamb, to protect it from blemish (as it was required to be by the Law), was wrapped in swaddling cloth and placed in a food trough apart from the other sheep. Ah, this would be a sign indeed! They would find the Savior, Christ the Lord, wrapped just like they wrapped their own precious lamb after its birth.

This was Our Lord’s first binding, one of love. His second binding was when He was taken away by His enemies, His hands tied together by cords, in the Garden of Gethsemane. The third binding was the bands that wrapped Him in His funeral shroud. Mary removed the first bands. His executioners removed the ropes of the second binding so that He might carry the Cross of salvation. And, on Easter Sunday, the Glorified Christ Himself removed the cloths that bound His Body around His funeral shroud.

“By His bruises we are healed” (Isaias 53:5). By His bindings we are set free: “And presently he that had been dead came forth, bound feet and hands with winding bands; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44).