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The Woman Behind Good King Wenceslaus

I know of no one whose favorite Christmas carol is Good King Wenceslaus, yet it remains a classic. Upon closer examination of the lyrics, I begin to understand why.

The song takes place “on the feast of Stephen,” the day after Christmas. I always found it peculiar that the Church celebrates the feast day of the first martyr on the day after Christmas. Then I thought, “Why not? Isn’t that the whole reason Jesus came – that we may have the grace to love God so much and long to be with him so ardently that we, like Jesus, would be willing to give everything up for him?”

Anyway, the day after Christmas, St. Wenceslaus spies a poor peasant gathering wood on a cold, snowy evening. Quickly, the King, calling a servant, has a meal which included meat and wine prepared for him. Then, he and his page set out to find their guest. As the night grows colder and wind more bitter, the page fears he cannot go on. The king tells the young servant to walk in his footsteps, thus blocking the wind and providing tracks in which to follow.

The last verse (who ever gets to the last verse?), declares a blessing:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.

St. Wenceslaus not only died for the Faith (he was a tenth century martyr), he also lived it. Truly, he understood what it meant to be a Christian. St. Ludmila taught him well.

Who is St. Ludmila, you ask? The following is an excerpt from my book, Saintly Moms: 25 Stories of Holiness, about this holy grandma.

Dhess Ludmila and her husband Borivoj I, Duke of Bohemia, were converted to Christianity by the famous apostle to the Slavs, Saint Methodius, just one year into their marriage. They were the first Czech rulers to come to the Faith. The enthusiasm of the two new converts, however, failed to win over their pagan subjects. They faced so much opposition that they were exiled from their own country. In their absence, chaos ensued. Not long after their departure, they were asked to return, and peace was restored.

The duke and duchess were wise and just rulers. Together, Ludmila and Borivoj built the first church in Bohemia, Saint Clement Church. When Borivoj died, the dukedom was given to the elder of their two sons, Spytihnev. After two short years, however, he passed away, and his younger brother, Vratislav, succeeded him.

Ludmila retired to a castle in Tetin after her husband’s death. When it became clear to her that her son and daughter-in-law had no intention of raising their sons as Christians, she asked that the eldest boy, Wenceslaus, be allowed to live with her. Ludmila tutored and raised her grandson. Thus, the grandmother was able to ensure that the boy learned and lived the Faith.

When Wenceslaus was a young teen, his father died. Because the boy was so young, his mother, Drohomira, ruled as regent in his place. She had the youth removed from his grandmother’s home and returned to the palace. Still, Drohomira resented the influence that Ludmila had over her son. As a Christian, Wenceslaus was a threat to her anti-Christian rule.

Drohomira hired two noblemen to murder the elderly lady. The assassins forced their way into the castle at Tetin, found the Duchess in her bedroom, and strangled her with her own veil. When Wenceslaus was old enough to ascend to the throne, he had his grandmother’s body brought to Saint George’s church in Prague, where he venerated his holy grandmother, Ludmila. Many considered her a martyr for the Faith.

By her life and death, Ludmila won the graces for her grandson to follow in her footsteps. Not only did he live a Christian life, but eventually, Wenceslaus would also be martyred — by his own brother, Boleslaus. Both grandmother and grandson are canonized saints.

So, this Christmas season, whenever you hear the carol Good King Wenceslaus, pause for a moment and listen. Reflect on his Christian charity. And remember his grandmother, St. Ludmila, who taught her grandson to know, love, and serve the Lord. Then, thank God for those who passed the Faith on to you.

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