Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good (Gay?) King Wenceslas

St. Wenceslaus (Vaclav) and Podiven, his Assistant
By Lewis Williams, SFO. © 2007
Courtesy of (800.699.4482)
Collection of the Living Circle, Chicago, IL

 There’s good reason to believe that Good King Wenceslas was gay. Yes, the king in the Christmas carol.

Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935) was duke of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). The carol is based on a legend about Wenceslaus and his loyal page Podiven. According to the story, it was a bitterly cold night when they went out to give alms to the poor on the Feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26. Podiven could not walk any farther on his bare, frozen feet, so Wenceslas urged him to follow in his footsteps. His footprints in the snow stayed miraculously warm, allowing the pair to continue safely together.

Many details in the Christmas carol are pious fiction, but the king and his page are both grounded in historical truth. Dennis O’Neill, author of “Passionate Holiness,” shared with this blog his unpublished research about the loving relationship between Wenceslaus and Podiven.

The earliest accounts of Wenceslaus’ life mention his page -- but not the woman who supposedly gave birth to his son in more recent versions. An account written in the late 10th or early 11th century describes the young man who was a “worthy page” and “chamber valet” to Wenceslaus.

It says that Wenceslaus used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing charitable works. The page is described as “a youth from among his valets who, of all his servants, was the most trustworthy in secret matters. The saint himself truly loved him during his lifetime.”

Wenceslaus was murdered in a coup by his brother at the door of a church on Sept. 28 in the year 935. The records say that Podiven “was often overcome by grief, sorrowing for days on end.” The brother also had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslaus. Both Wenceslaus and his beloved Podiven are buried at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

The icon above was painted by New Mexico artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). It is dedicated to the memory of Father Larry Craig, a Chicago priest known for service to the Latino community and prison ministry. Before his death in 2006, Father Craig used to stand outside the Cook County Jail at night, giving sandwiches and bus passes to surprised inmates who had just been released. He served as the model for Podiven’s face in this icon.

I hope that these facts warm your heart this Christmas and whenever you hear or sing the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” Here are links to two versions of the song on YouTube:

Male voices: The Irish Rovers

Female voice: Loreena McKennitt from “A Midwinter Night’s Dream

Merry Christmas, everybody!
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

The Wenceslaus and Podiven icon and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Trudie said...

Delightful! However, I somehow think it would have made more sense if Wenceslaus had provided his page with shoes? That heated footprints trick might be spectacular, but a bit impractical? I love the icon, especially since the artist is from New Mexico. Smile.

Kittredge Cherry said...

One of the saint commentaries explained that the heated footprints is supposed to remind us to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It also reminds me of the famous "Footprints in the Sand" poem.

Trudie, I'm happy to see that even on Christmas Eve you're not too busy to comment at the Jesus in Love Blog! Merry Christmas!

Turtle Woman said...

Wow, it's Christmas eve and this is perfect. That Wenceslaus song was so weird when I was a kid. My Mom always said that was her favorite song, but it made no sense to me at all as a kid.

Now, viva la differance!!

I loved this post, and the songs at the end were perfect too. Loved the "Footprints in the Sand" comparison. Ah lesbian and gay Christmas, schlocky fun over Footprints, may all your footprints be heated and bright :-)

Great year, loved this blog.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, Turtle Woman, for an especially well written comment. I also remember how some Christmas carols seemed weird to me as a child. I recall wondering what "Silent Night" meant by "round yon virgin." Nobody would explain to me what a virgin was! I decided it must mean "mountain."

I hope you're having a great holiday season.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Two of my favorite GLBT Christian bloggers paid me the compliment of highlighting this post on their own blogs:

Queering the Church (Terry's blog)

Of Course I Could Be Wrong (MadPriest's blog)

MadPriest’s post sparked a debate about whether the Good King should have given Podiven some better shoes. Sheila said: “I'm practical enough to wonder why the good gay King didn't give poor Podivan shoes before they went out into the snow.”

I don’t think the legend says the page was barefoot, just that his feet were cold. I’m the type whose feet get cold easily, no matter what kind of boots I’m wearing. The only thing that worked for me was warming my shoes on a heater before going out. (And then moving to Los
Angeles, where it never snows. When I lived in cold climates, I would have loved to have warm footprints to follow in winter!