Friday, December 24, 2010

A song, a saint and a square

Statue of St. Wenceslas in
Wenceslas Square. Sculpture by
Josef Václav Myslbek.
Written by Cheryl Odden

Here’s a riddle: What do a song, a saint and a square have in common?

If you answered King Wenceslas, you are correct!

King Wenceslas lived during the 10th century in Bohemia, now the western half of the Czech Republic. Wenceslas was not a king but a duke. He was born to parents Drahimora and Ratislav around the year 907, but it was Wenceslas’ grandmother, Ludmila, who taught him about the Christian faith and the importance of helping the poor and suffering.

When Wenceslas was just 13, his father died. Since he was too young to take the throne, his mother ruled and did so with an iron fist. She disliked Christianity. She imprisoned priests and persecuted believers. Worried that Wenceslas and his grandmother would conspire against her, Drahimora refused to let Wenceslas have any contact with her and ordered her to be killed. One night while his grandmother slept, she was strangled.

Distraught over his grandmother’s death, Wenceslas knew he needed to act. Despite his youth, he banished his mother to a nearby country and took the throne as duke of Bohemia.

Unlike his mother, 18-year-old Wenceslas ruled with a gentle hand. He released the priests from prison and encouraged German missionaries to spread Christianity throughout Bohemia. He showed kindness to the poor and children without parents and pledged his loyalty to Germany’s King Henry I. These actions angered his younger brother, Boleslav, whose hatred of Christianity and fierce jealousy of Wenceslas’ reign resembled that of his mother’s. So Boleslav and other angry nobles plotted their revenge.

Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a religious festival where he treated him well. One day, as Wenceslas walked to church, Boleslav followed him. Knowing his brother was behind him as he stood at the church door, Wenceslas rightfully sensed trouble. Boleslav drew his sword and struck Wenceslas on the head.

Wenceslas managed to hurl his brother to the ground only for Boleslav’s men to pin him down and stab him in the hand. Again, Wenceslas got away and ran to seek refuge in the church, but he was struck down at the door where he died on September 20, 929.

But Boleslav’s plan to wipe out his older brother backfired on him. Wenceslas’ short reign of five years was forever etched in the hearts of Bohemians and Czech citizens, who made him the patron saint of their country.

More than 900 years after Wenceslas’ ruthless death, his example of generous giving inspired Reverend John Mason Neale to pen the words to the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” Just before Neale wrote the song, the people of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, decided their town square needed a better name. Used as a horse market since the 1300s, the boulevard was renamed “Wenceslas Square.” And with its new name came a statue, featuring Wenceslas on his horse, that was placed at the top of the square in the early 1900s.

This Christmas, as you clear your throat to sing “Good King Wenceslas,” think about the man whose actions inspired the song, made him a saint and earned him the naming of a square.

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