St. Wenceslas

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With the IMF sessions and demonstrations currently in progress, many people have been given time off in case trouble ensues and may well be unaware that Thursday is a national holiday. Pavla Navratilova looks at the life of the famous Czech 'good king' who is the namesake of this national day off.

The 28th of September is St. Wenceslas Day, a national holiday here in the Czech Republic. St. Wenceslas is the Czech nation's patron saint, a man whose life was both virtuous and tragic... but what do Czechs really know about the patron that grants this holiday? We went out onto the streets to find out: Who exactly was this "holy" man whose pious nature proclaimed him a saint of such national importance and why was his tragic life so prominent? Wenceslas the First was the fourth in line of the famous Premyslid dynasty, who most notably helped the Czech lands ally themselves with the Saxon ruler King Henry the Fowler. This alliance led to the Czechs forming closer relations with the restored Roman Empire.

Although enthroned at the age of thirteen after the early death of his father, his mother Drahomira ruled until his eighteenth birthday. During this time Wenceslas grew up with his grandmother Ludmila, who instilled in him Christian beliefs and morality. However, his mother arranged the murder of Ludmila to ensure her own influence over the throne. Religion itself played a crucial role in this family's politics.

During her reign Drahomira allowed the country to fall back into a pagan lifestyle, even allowing the persecution of clergymen. But once Wenceslas took over the throne, he systematically encouraged the return of Christianity into the Czech lands. Due to his grandmother's influence, he was an advocate of the Christian religion and his beliefs were generated into actions: he ordained the building of the Rotunda of St. Vitus Cathedral, encouraged priests to bring education to the countryside, and often sought religious advice from the Church.

Beyond this, Wenceslas is famous for many a 'good deed'. He's believed to have provided shelter to orphans, bought children out of slavery, and delivered wood to the needy. The latter of these deeds has been preserved in the old English hymn made into the popular Christmas Carol "Good King Wenceslas". It tells a tale of a saintly monarch who set forth on a bitter winter night to gather fuel, side by side with a peasant.

This very behavior, and the reinstatement of Christian ideals, led to both his murder and subsequent sainthood. His brother is credited with the murder, the motives being both pursuit of power and religious disagreement. Soon afterwards he was proclaimed a saint and today he is the patron of the Czech lands. It is alleged that he was murdered on the 28th of September in the year 935 AD, and this is why the national holiday of St. Wenceslas Day falls on this day.

We went looking for more detailed information, and found it at a rather unlikely location: the headquarters of the Czech Communist Party. Vojtech Kopecky, a former Radio Prague employee, told us more about the saint's life: It appears that his cooperation with the Saxons may have been the reason for his death, but it was also this which led him to take such a prominent position in Czech history. He is said to be the first man to combine eastern and western Christianity, helping the Czech lands welcome a foundation for the newly restored Holy Roman Empire.

And as with any sainthood, being martyred isn't the only requirement. Various post-mortem miracles have been appropriated to this man. First, there was his blood on the steps of the church where he was killed which was said to have remained on the surface for a whole three days. Another legend claims that this same blood reappeared on top of his coffin during his funeral. These are the legends saints are made of.

From the day that he was proclaimed patron saint of the land, he became a symbol of the Czech nation. It was said that Charles IV placed the crown of the Holy Roman empire on the skull of St. Wenceslas and noted that any monarch who was to wear it from that day forward was simply borrowing it from the patron. His image can be found on coinage as far back as the 11th century, while Charles University still uses his face on their seal. This same image is said to have mystically appeared before a number of leaders throughout the ages, always as a sign of impending victory.

The greatest symbol of Wenceslas' importance to the Czech nation has to be the square, that is in a fact a long street, that boasts his name. The statue of St. Wenceslas on his horse sits facing the most famous piece of real estate in the country. Wenceslas Square has played host to the most important events in recent Czech history. The Czechoslovak state was proclaimed here after a large demonstration in this very spot in Oct. 1918. Another demonstration opposed to the Soviet-led invasion took place in 1968. Earlier the following year, the Square was the scene of the infamous event where a young student by the name of Jan Palach burned himself to death in protest of the Soviet occupation. 1989 saw the Velvet Revolution to counter the events of the previous two decades. It became clear that the spot occupied by the Czech's very own patron saint had become an important symbol of a legacy that this small country wished never to forget.

So on the 28th, when the city is enjoying a day off from work, keep in mind what the nation is actually celebrating. Was Good King Wenceslas as good as he seemed? A point which many historians will continue to debate. He was, however, a pious man whose beliefs and actions were what made him legendary in his own land.

Author: Pavla Navrátilová
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