As every Czech knows, 'Good King Wenceslas' (907–935) is known by several names, most commonly Václav . The story of his short life is like a plotline from Game of Thrones - read here.
According to legend, Václav/Wenceslas was an unusually good man, but unfortunately this did not enhance his life chances. He came to a sticky end, murdered by his wicked brother Boleslav the Bad.
Václav was later declared a Christian martyr and beatified. The Pope even took the liberty of posthumously promoting the new saint to King Wenceslas (he was technically a duke).
A cult developed around Wenceslas. He became a symbol of Czech nationalism, as well as a venerated Catholic saint. Tales were told of his boundless courage and self-sacrifice.
One of these legends was that he had sacrificed his own life to save that of his page. According to the (implausible) version celebrated in Neale’s famous carol (1853) the two men were out in the snow giving alms to peasants on a freezing night
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
As night closed in, the page was losing the will to continue, but Wenceslas urged him on. The Good King ensured the miraculous survival of his servant at the expense of his own life.
Why ‘the feast of Stephen’?
Stephen is widely acknowledged as the first Christian martyr — his death was witnessed and recorded by Paul. His ‘feast’ is the Second of the Eight Days of Christmas celebrated by Christians— the 26th December. This is now more commonly known as Boxing Day in most of the English-speaking world (though not the USA).
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