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…