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WENCESLAS: The Man, the Myth, the Christmas Carol

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By Steven Otfinoski

As far as Christmas carols go, you've got three basic archetypes: songs about Jesus, songs about baby Jesus and songs about snowy weather. Then, tossed in with a lovable snowman, is poor King Wenceslas. Because he's jumbled into this mix, some might walk away thinking the good king existed only in song; but they'd be wrong. Very wrong. With a nation of Czechs still looking to him as their patron saint, it seems that Wenceslas more than made his mark. So, just how "good" was he? And why do we sing about him at Christmas time? Don't worry, it's all covered below.

Behind the Music

Wenceslas, or Vaclav, as he was better known, was born around 907 C.E. Strictly speaking, the "good king" wasn't a king at all, but a prince who presided over Bohemia, the region that eventually became a principal part of Czechoslovakia and more recently the Czech Republic. In addition to the "king" myth, the well-known Christmas carol has perpetuated an image of Wenceslas as a bearded, middle-aged monarch. The truth is he died around age 22.

While Wenceslas was not a king, he was a member of the first royal Bohemian dynasty, the Premysls. The first Premysl on historical record is Duke Borivoy, grandfather of Wenceslas and the first ruler in his pagan land to accept Christianity. Borivoy married the Slav princess Ludmila, who joined her husband in converting to the Christian faith, and together they built the first church in Bohemia. Upon his death Borivoy was succeeded by his two sons, Raislav, Wenceslas' father, and Spythinev. Young Wenceslas was extremely close to his grandmother, Ludmila, who instilled in him a strong religious faith and gave him a thorough education (a highly unusual opportunity since most aristocrats at the time couldn't read or write). Raislav died when Wenceslas was 13, and his power-hungry mother, Drahmoira, became regent. Although probably not a pagan herself, Drahmoira aligned herself with the anti-Christian crowd in Bohemia and separated Ludmila from her son to prevent them from plotting against her. Later she had her mother-in-law strangled, thus making Ludmila one of Bohemia's first Christian martyrs and a role model for her grandson.

Wenceslas quickly proved his mettle by going up against his mother's forces and defeating them in one decisive battle. Now the sole ruler of Bohemia, the young prince ended the persecution of Christians, promoted education among his people, and united Bohemia and Moravia into one kingdom. Accordingly, he became known for his kindness to children and the poor, a trait that is central to the Christmas carol.

The Wenceslas Formerly Known as Prince

The Czech nobles didn't like Wenceslas' promotion of Christianity, but it was his relationship with Germany that proved to be his undoing. Rather than wait to be attacked by his powerful neighbor, Wenceslas formed an alliance with Henry I, the first Saxon monarch of Germany. According to the alliance, Bohemia would be under German domination but retain much of its independence.

Angered by the alliance, the nobles, who distrusted Germany, began plotting Wenceslas' death. And, in a Shakespearean twist, they were joined in their plot by the prince's ambitious brother, Boleslav. There are several versions of how Wenceslas met his end on September 20, 929. One version holds that the scheming Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival and personally attacked him on the way to church. A more lurid version has Boleslav's co-conspirators striking the young king down in cold blood as he attended mass.

The dark deed earned Boleslav the fitting epithet "Boleslav the Cruel," but the murderous brother turned out to be a surprisingly able monarch. His quarrel with Wenceslas must have been more political than religious, for he himself was a Christian, and he (like Wenceslas) did not persecute Christians as his mother had. Boleslav greatly expanded the kingdom of Bohemia, adding parts of Moravia not already in his kingdom, a good bit of Silesia and most of what is today Slovakia. When he died in 967 after a 38-year reign, Boleslav left behind a kingdom geographically similar to what the Czech Republic is today.

As for poor Wenceslas, his untimely death may have been the best thing to happen to him. Perhaps to atone for his act of fratricide, Boleslav had his brother's bones buried in the church of St.Vitus in Prague. The relics made the church the center of a cult to the Christian martyr and soon Bohemian pilgrims were flocking to the holy site. The celebration of Wenceslas' life became so prominent that a national holiday was created called Wenceslas' Feast Day, celebrated for the first time on September 28, 985. Within another generation, he was officially declared Bohemia's patron saint. His image appeared on coins, and the so-called "Crown of Wenceslas" became, in subsequent centuries, a symbol of the Czech lands and their people. Wenceslas remains a potent symbol of Czech patriotism and independence to this day—not bad for a prince who didn't make it to his 30s.

Martyr and Child Reunion

So where does the Christmas carol fit into all this? Fast forward about 800 years to London when John Mason Neale, son of an Anglican clergyman, was born in 1818. After being ordained in 1842, chronic poor health prevented Neale from being appointed to a parish. Instead, he was made chief official of Sackville College in 1846. Sackville, despite its name, was not an institute of higher learning but an almshouse that sheltered the poor and underprivileged. Neale took his charge seriously and worked tirelessly to better the lot of the unfortunate. In 1854 he co-founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, a religious order whose duty was to nurse the sick. To many Anglicans, this smacked too much of Roman Catholicism, and they accused Neale of being an agent of Rome. He was physically attacked by a crowd at a funeral service and several times was nearly stoned by mobs who also threatened to burn down his house.

But Neale survived the persecution and eventually earned some respect as a church scholar and translator of ancient and medieval hymns from the original Latin and Greek. He also penned original hymns and carols, the most famous being "Good King Wenceslas," written in 1853. He intended it as a carol for children to instill in them the importance of giving to the unfortunate, and chose Wenceslas as his protagonist because of his reputation as a pious ruler who was kind to the poor.

"Good King Wenceslas," with its quaint moral lesson of a king who enlists his page to help him bring food, wine and fuel to one of his poorest subjects during a raging storm, was an instant success. The Good Reverend Neale continued to serve the poor himself until his death at age 48 in 1866.

For all its popularity, "Good King Wenceslas" isn't strictly a Christmas carol. In fact, the story told in the carol takes place on the Feast of Stephen, which falls on December 26, the day after Christmas. However, Stephen, as those of you who are savvy about your saints know, was also the first Christian martyr, which makes the setting of this popular carol grimly appropriate.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.


Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.


Raw dough.

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.


Kids trick-or-treating.

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.


The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.


Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.


Kids knocking on a door in costume.

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.


Sugar skulls with decoration.

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.


Little girl trick-or-treating.

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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