Express Yourself

Little Jesus Punished You: My Search for a Dead Idiom

A story of family, Catholicism, and etymology

Jon Oliver
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readJul 3, 2020
Closeup of a carved baby Jesus laying in a manger in a Nativity scene.
Photo: Sebastian Wasiak/EyeEm/Getty Images

My wife and I couldn’t agree on lunch. She said something snarky, grabbed a box of Cheerios from the cupboard, and promptly dropped it on the kitchen floor, spilling them everywhere.

“Little Jesus punished you,” I said. We laughed.

I’ve carried this idiom for my entire life. It’s a playful retort with equal parts vengeance, omniscience, and shame — a beautiful work of Catholic dialectics. As far as I understood, it was universally known to anyone whose parents went to elementary school with nuns, or anyone who might have stubbed their toe as a child after a bit of prideful posturing.

But then I Googled it. The search returned zero results.

As with memes, the idiom is a way to establish your own identity, but also transcend literal language to convey a more abstract, inherent truth.

This seemed impossible. I called my dad to break the news. He was in shock: “You might as well have told me I’m adopted.” His mom said it. My mom’s mom said it. I could call any of his sisters — but I didn’t need to. I remember them saying it, too.

An informal Twitter poll seemed to confirm my worst nightmare. Responses ranged from “what” to “no idea what the hell you are talking about.” Was this some dark family joke I’ve been spreading my entire life? What other aspects of my identity had apparently sprung from the recesses of some spiteful, lead-poisoned great-great-ancestor’s brain?

I needed to find an origin story

There were three leading theories. My dad’s seemed the most plausible: “It’s an old Catholic thing.” Sure. I don’t expect the mid-century Catholic guard to be tossing out expressions on WordPress for Google to aggregate. But this was much too nonspecific to be satisfying, and surely would have turned up search results somehow.

My instinct was that it was simply regional. Both sides of my family grew up in Bay City, Michigan, a tiny industrial river town, hours north of…



Jon Oliver
Human Parts

I am a writer in Los Angeles @realjonoliver