Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas, Good King Wenceslas

The statue of King Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech people, is one of the dominant landmarks of Prague. Legend has it that at the Czechs’ greatest hour of need, the statue will come to life and lead his people to salvation. Other versions have St. Wenceslas rousing the slumbering Knights of Blanik entombed beneath Blanik Mountain under similar circumstances. However, many only know King Wenceslas as the subject of the Christmas carol, one of the few sacred-themed carols which do not mention the birth of Christ.

King Wenceslas only ruled then Bohemia for five years. As the carol suggests, he was known for his charity to the poor and to children. Also known to be hard on the nobility, his reign was marked by comfort for the afflicted, and affliction for the comforted. On his ascent to the throne, King Wenceslas ended his mother’s persecution of Christianity, becoming a staunch Defender of the Faith. He even considered abdication to pursue a life of the cloth. Ultimately, he was martyred by his brother, after ruling only five years.

The twentieth century was difficult for Czechs, yet King Wenceslas did not return during the German occupation or the Soviet invasion of 1968. However, some do not know Václav is the common Czech and Slovak derivative of Wenceslas, and one Václav definitely came to the fore.

The analogy between Václav Havel and King Wenceslas is certainly flawed. Though harassed and imprisoned, Havel happily was not permanently martyred. From 1977 to 1989 Havel regularly saw the inside of prison cells. Havel is the playwright and jazz fan who rallied to the cause of the persecuted rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. He became the natural leader of the Velvet Revolution, culminating in his election to the Presidency, heading the first free government since the Communist coup of 1948 from Prague Castle, where King Wenceslas ruled over 1,000 years earlier.

Havel neither sought power for himself, or to cling to it once he attained it. He is now content in his role as preeminent world citizen. In recent years he has taken the lead supporting the emerging democracy movement in Cuba, and advocating vigilance against. Fortunately, he is not a saint, but he is a hero.

If you are caroling this Christmas, give St. Wenceslas his due. Let us give thanks for his example and those of the great heroes of our time, like Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, and those risked their lives with them. Merry Christmas to all my Czech friends, and to all semi-regular readers of J.B. Spins, wherever you are.