Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creating a Christmas Legend

My 33rd great-grandfather was personally responsible for creating one of the great Christmas legends and traditions -- a legend that has been passed down for over 1,000 years and commemorated in the popular Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslas" since about 1850. It is likely that no one today would know the name and legend of Good King Wenceslas had it not been for the efforts of my 33rd great-grandfather, Duke Boleslav I z Czechy of Bohemia.

You see, "King" Wenceslas was never actually a king. His name was Vaclav z Czechy and he was merely a duke. And even his claim to that title was not entirely legitimate. In order to seize control of the Duchy of Bohemia, he had his own mother, who had been serving as regent following the death of his father, exiled. After usurping control of Bohemia, Vaclav then entered into an alliance with the Slavs and Magyars that resulted in Bohemia being invaded by -- and becoming a vassal state of -- the Saxons and Bavarians into whose lands the Slavs and Magyars had been encroaching and raiding for centuries.

So, to restore the independence of his beloved homeland, Boleslav invited his older brother Vaclav to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian at the church in Stara Boleslav on 28 September 935. While Vaclav was enroute to the feast, three of Boleslav's retainers ambushed and murdered him, so Boleslav was elevated to Duke of Bohemia. Almost immediately, he reversed the policy of support for the Slavs and Magyars and began fighting for independence from Bavaria and Saxony. He expanded Bohemian territories by crushing the Magyar army, and arranged for his daughter to marry the Duke of Poland to strengthen Bohemia against continued attempts at domination by Bavaria and Saxony. For all of his patriotic efforts, however, my 33rd great-grandfather was given the epithet, "Boleslav Ukrutny" ("Boleslaus the Cruel").

Adding further insult, Vaclav was cannonized as a saint shortly after his death and was posthumously declared "king" by Emperor Otto "the Great" to whom he had been a loyal vassal. To justify this outrage, a fictional account was created of Vaclav's piety and generosity in which he is said to have walked a league (about three miles) barefoot through the snow to bring food and firewood to a destitute peasant on whom he had taken pity. This baseless legend has persisted for over 1,000 years. To heap further abuse on the memory of Duke Boleslav, Vaclav is considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic and the Czech people.

So this Christmas, when you hear carolers cheerfully extolling the virtues of "Good King Wenceslas" just remember that you have the courage and patriotism of my 33rd great-grandfather, "Cruel" Duke Boleslav, to thank for the merriment that charlatan's song brings to your heart!

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