It’s the Feastday of St. Wenceslas!
I know, we all think of him at Christmastime, when “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” It’s the Feast of Stephen that follows the Nativity of our Lord, not the Feast of Wenceslas.
And, of course, Wenceslas wasn’t a king. Not during his lifetime. He was the Duke of Bohemia, a region that corresponds with the western portion of the current Czech Republic. It was after his death that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I declared him a king.
Wenceslas’s grandparents had become Christians when the missionary saints Cyril and Methodios came to Bohemia. His father, Vratislav, was a Christian, his mother, Drahomira, a pagan who was baptized just in time for the wedding.
In the years that followed their wedding, Vratislav and Drahomira had six children, two boys and four girls. Wenceslas was the eldest.
Vratislav died in a battle when Wenceslas was 13. After that time, Wenceslas was pretty much raised by his Grandmother Ludmila. She ensured that his education covered everything he would need to know as a duke and as a Christian. He learned to fight wars. He also learned give alms generously. That, of course, endeared him to the poor, but not to the other powerful leaders of Bohemia.
Including his younger brother, Boleslav.
Boleslav was raised primarily by their mother Drahomira, whose sympathies were still largely pagan. And Drahomira resented the influence her mother-in-law Ludmila had on Wenceslas. At some point, she arranged to have Ludmila murdered. (Some stories said the assassins strangled her with her veil.)
Then, because Wenceslas was not yet of age, she took control as regent. And because she was still pagan at heart, she began taking action against Christians. While practicing his faith in secret, Wenceslas did everything in his power to help the Christians. As an under-age duke, that wasn’t a lot. But he gave the harvest of his own vinyards and wheat fields to the Church. That, at least, meant that the Church would have bread and wine for the Sacraments. (Incredibly, St. Wenceslas Vinyard, at Prague Castle, is still a functioning vinyard, and if you’re in Prague in late September, you can go to a wine tasting there!)
When Wenceslas turned eighteen, he took control of Bohemia, placed it under the protection of Germany, and exiled his mother.
He didn’t have much choice, but the Bohemian nobility didn’t like being under the Germans. Wenceslas himself might not have liked it very much; when you have to pay tribute, you don’t get to do the things you might prefer to do with your money.
Wenceslas and his brother might have gotten along all right, with their mother away. But when Wenceslas’s first son was born, Boleslav’s supporters began pointing out that this new baby was now the first in line for the throne. Boleslav would never be Duke of Bohemia if he didn’t do something.
So he did something. He had his brother murdered.
On the steps of the church.
Following a celebration of the feast of Ss. Cosmos and Damian.
A feast that Boleslav had invited him to, in order to kill him.
Almost immediately after his death, Wenceslas was declared a martyr and a saint. Hagiographies were written. The people who had received alms from his hands began to pray at his grave. Miracles occurred.
Boleslav was the Duke, but was largely forgotten. Wenceslas has been remembered for a thousand years and more as the good king, the example and model of a Christian monarch, as beloved today as he was when he was Duke.
Perhaps even more beloved. During late September every year, the Feast of St. Wenceslas is celebrated with great joy throughout the Czech Republic. There are church services and prayers, of course. And parades and concerts and beer gardens and wine tastings and folk dances and all manner of events in honor of St. Wenceslas, their patron.
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!
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6 ways to celebrate St. Stephen’s Day: You can sing “Good King Wenceslas,” of course. But maybe you’d rather bake cookies, or practice almsgiving, or ride a carousel.
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