Wednesday, 28 September 2022

The Feast of St Wenceslaus

Most of the recipes are Czech Feast Day dishes that I've eaten here in Wilber, the Czech Capital of the US.

From FishEaters

The story of "Good King Wenceslaus" -- known in his homeland as Václav -- is a story of what we'd call now a "dysfunctional family." He paternal grandparents were Bořivoj and St. Ludmilla, who were converted to the Faith by Saints Cyril and Methodius. His father, Vratislaus, married Drahomira, daughter of a pagan, but later baptized -- not that it did her much good. Wenceslaus had a number of siblings, but among them was Boleslaus who, for reasons we'll soon learn of, became known as "the Cruel." A diagram to help you envision things:





Some more background: Though we speak of "Good King Wenceslaus," his status as king was granted to him only after death. While he lived, he was a Duke, and the area in which he lived was the Duchy of Bohemia, or what is now known as the western part of the Czech Republic. The first Duke of Bohemia was Bořivoj I, Wenceslaus's paternal grandfather. The second Duke was Bořivoj's oldest son, Spytihněv I, Wenceslaus's uncle. Then came Vratislaus I, Wenceslaus's father.

Wenceslaus's grandmother -- St. Ludmilla -- and Wenceslaus were very close while he was growing up, and she made certain that he was raised in the Faith. She also arranged for him to attend, at a very young age, the college in Budeč where he was taught not only Slavonic, but Latin, the Psalms, and all those things that were considered fundamental to a well-rounded education at the time.

When Wenceslaus was still a boy, his father died, and his grandmother reigned in her son's stead. Her daughter-in-law -- Drahomira, Wenceslaus's mother -- was so jealous of her power, and of her influence over Wenceslaus that she sent two men to murder her. This they did, strangling St. Ludmilla with her own veil (her relics can be venerated in the Church of St. George in Prague, the historical capital of Bohemia. Her feast is on September 16).

Upon his grandmother's death, Wenceslaus became the Duke. He placed Bohemia under the protection of German princes, and brought into his realm many Latin priests. He took a vow of virginity and excelled at the virtues, becoming especially known for his charity. "He rendered good unto all the needy, and fed and worked for the sake of the poor, according to the teachings of the Gospel: He fed sick slaves, defended widows, and had mercy upon all people, both the wanting and the wealthy. And he adorned all the churches with gold, believed in God with all his heart, and did all manner of good in his life."[1]

One tale exemplifying St. Wenceslaus's generosity is best told by John Mason Neale,[2] the Anglican priest who also told the story against the music of a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum ("Springtime has come"), thereby giving us the carol "Good King Wenceslaus," which you can listen to on the page about the Feast of St. Stephen:

The holy Christmas-tide was drawing nigh. The Church was already far advanced in Advent; and was now bidding her children to look forward to the coming King. Winter had set in over Germany with unusual severity; hedges, fields, and ways, were blotted out in the deep soft snow; the creaking of the rude waggons was silent; the labourer was idle; the plough was in the shed; the spade and mattock in the tool-house.

King Wenceslaus of Bohemia sat in his palace. He had been watching, from the narrow window of the turret-chamber where he was, the sunset, as its glory hung for a moment on the western clouds, and then died away over the Erzgebirge, and the blue hills of Rabenstein. Calm and cold was its brightness; the colours that but now were of ruby and jasper, faded into purple, and were lost in grey; a freezing haze came over the face of the earth; the short winter day was swallowed up of night. But the crescent moon brightened towards the south-west; and the leafless trees in the castle gardens, and the quaint turrets and spires of the castle itself, threw clear dark shadows on the unspotted snow.

Still the King gazed forth on the scene, for he had learnt to draw lessons of wisdom from all these daily changes that we so little regard; and he knew that God speaks to us by this beautiful world; he was able, in a very true sense, thus to make the nights and days, the summer and winter, to bless the Lord, and to praise Him and magnify Him for ever. And so, in that sunset, he saw an emblem of our resurrection; he felt that the night would come, the night in which no man could work; but he knew also that the morning would follow, that morning which shall have no evening.

The ground sloped down from the castle towards the forest. Here and there on the side of the hill, a few bushes, gray with moss, broke the unvaried sheet of white. And as the King turned his eyes in that direction, a poor man—and the moonshine was bright enough to show his misery and his rags— came up to these bushes, and seemed to pull somewhat from them.

"Without there!" cried King Wenceslaus. "Who is in waiting!" and one of the servants of the palace entered, and answered to the call.

"This way, good Otto," said the King. " You see that poor man on the hill-side. Step down to him and learn who he is, and where he dwells, and what he is doing; and bring me word again."

Otto went forth on his errand, and the King watched him down the hill. Meantime the frost grew more and more intense ; the east wind breathed from the bleak mountains of Gallicia; the snow became more crisp, and the air more clear. Ten minutes sufficed to bring back the messenger.

"Well, and who is it?" inquired King Wenceslaus.

"My liege," said Otto, "it is Rudolph the swineherd, he that lives down by the Brunweiss. Fire he has none, nor food neither: and he was gathering a few sticks where he might find them, lest, as he says, all his family perish with cold. It is a most bitter night, Sire."

"This should have been better looked to," said the King; "and a grievous fault is it that it has not been. But it shall be amended now. Go to the ewery, Otto, and fetch some provisions, of the best; and then come forth, and meet me at the wood-stacks by S. Mary's Chapel."

"Is your Majesty going forth?" asked Otto.

"To the Brunweiss," said the King; "and you shall go with me; wherefore be speedy."

"I pray you, Sire, do not go yourself. Let some of the men-at-arms go forth. It is a freezing wind; and a league it is at least to the place."

"Nevertheless," said Wenceslaus, " I go. Go with me, if you will; if not, stay; I can carry the food myself."

"God forbid, Sire, that I should let you go alone. But I pray you to be persuaded."

"Not in this," said Wenceslaus. "Meet me, then, where I said; and not a word to anyone besides."

The noblemen of the court were in the hall, where a mighty fire went roaring up the chimney, and the shadows played and danced on the steep sides of the dark roof. Gaily they laughed, and lightly they talked, and they bade fresh logs be thrown into the chimney-place; and one said to another, that sp bitter a winter had never been known in Bohemia.

But in the midst of that freezing night, the King of Bohemia went forth. He had put on nothing to shelter himself from the nipping air; for he desired to feel with the poor, that he might feel for them. On his shoulder he bore a heap of logs for the swineherd's fire; and stepped briskly on, while Otto followed with the provisions. He, too, had imitated his master, and went in his common garments; and over the crisp snow, across fields, by lanes where the hedgetrees were heavy with their white load, past the frozen pool, through the little copse, where the wind made sweet melody in summer with the leaves, and rivers of gold streamed in upon the ground, but now silent and ghastly — over the stile where the rime clustered thick, by the road with its ruts of mire, and so out upon the moor, where the snow lay yet more unbroken, and the wind seemed to nip the very heart.

Still the King went on first: still the servant followed. The Saint thought it but little to go forth into the frost and the darkness, remembering Him Who came into the cold night of this world of ours; he disdained not, a King, to go to the beggar, for the King of Kings had visited slaves; he grudged not to carry the logs on his shoulder, for the LORD of all things had carried the Cross for his sake. But the servant, though he long held out with a good heart, at each step lost courage and zeal. Then very shame came to his aid; he would not do less than his master; he could not return to the court, while the King held on his way alone. But when they came forth on the white, bleak moor, his courage failed.

"My liege," he said, "I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return."

"Seems it so much?" asked the King. "Was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this?"

Otto answered not.

"Follow me on still," said S. Wenceslaus. "Only tread in my footsteps, and you will proceed more easily."

The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the King: he set his own feet in the print of his lord's feet.

And so great was the virtue of this Saint of the Most High, such was the fire of love that was kindled in him, that, as he trod in those steps, Otto gained life and heat. He felt not the wind; he heeded not the frost; the footprints glowed as with a holy fire, and zealously he followed the King on his errand of mercy.

You can download the text above in pdf format to more easily print it and read it to your children -- whom, as I say on the page about St. Stephen's feast, I hope you tell to think of King St. Wenceslaus when they see footprints in the snow! Perhaps you can get them, when seeing snowprints, to consider how they can be more charitable to others -- and how others have been charitable with them, helping them to develop a deep sense of gratitude.

In spite of Wenceslaus's goodness, his brother, Boleslaus came to truly earn his nickname of "the Cruel." On this day -- September 28 -- in 935, Boleslaus invited his brother to the Church of SS. Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, and when Wenceslaus arrived, three of his brother's co-conspirators stabbed him. When the Saint was down, Boleslaus himself ran him through with a lance.

The site of his assassination immediately became a place of pilgrimage, and St. Wenceslaus came to be venerated all over Europe, being given the title "King" by Holy Roman Emperer Otto the Great, who died in 973. In 1046, a new, Romanesque basilica was built at the site of his murder, and great pilrgimrages are made there to this day, especially around his feast. His relics, though, can be venerated in the St. Wenceslas Chapel of the great gothic St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague (his sword, later used in coronations, can be seen there as well). Each year on his feast, his skull is carried in a procession from St. Vitus Cathedral to the place where he was martyred in Stará Boleslav, twelve miles away. As his relics they make their way, church bells peal all over the republic.

The St. Wenceslaus Chapel of the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague

And now the upshot: The daughter of Wenceslaus's assassin brother -- a woman named Doubravka of Bohemia -- married Mieszko I of Poland. And she converted him to the Christian Faith. Mieszko, the very first ruler of Poland, brought the citizens of his country along with him into the Church -- and still today, Poland, along with Hungary, remains one of the most faithful countries on earth.

Customs

The gorgeous hymn "Svatý Václave" (Saint Wenceslaus) -- also known as the "Saint Wenceslaus Chorale" -- dates to the 12th century and is so revered in the Czech Republic that it was once in consideration to become the country's national anthem. It is perfect for the day:

As to foods, how about Czech garlic soup, Czech roasted duck, Czech potato dumplings or potato pancakes, and an appley dessert?

Česnečka (Garlic Soup)

2 tablespoons bacon fat or unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or beef stock, hot
2 large waxy potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp marjoram
3 cloves garlic, crushed, optional
Rye bread croutons *
Grated cheese (Emmental, Gruyere, or Camembert–rind removed)

In a medium saucepan, melt bacon fat or butter. Add onions and garlic and cook until translucent. Add hot stock and bring to a boil. Add potatoes, return to the boil, reduce heat, and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add and adjust seasonings and, for a stronger garlic taste, add 3 cloves crushed garlic (not minced). Serve immediately with croutons and grated cheese of choice. (The man who gave my this recipe says, "This soup is said to be the number one hangover cure in the Czech Republic.")

* To make rye bread croutons, cut 6 or so slices of light rye bread up into crouton-sized bites, toss lightly with olive oil, and toast in oven at 350oF for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crispy.

Pecená kachna (Roast Duck)

1 (5-pound) duck, thoroughly cleaned
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Cut the wing tips off of the duck and remove any excess fatty skin around the neck and from the cavity. If the duck is right out of the refrigerator, let sit about 2 hours to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pierce the duck fat all over with a fork, but do not pierce the meat. Liberally salt the exterior and interior of the duck, rub with the chopped garlic, and sprinkle with the caraway seeds. Place the duck breast-side down on a rack in a roasting pan with a lid. Pour 1 cup of water into the bottom of the roasting pan. Cover the pan and roast the duck for 1 hour, checking every so often to skim off the excess fat. Turn the duck breast-side up and continue to roast, uncovered, for another hour, basting often, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 150oF and the skin is golden. Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before carving. Serve with braised cabbage and potato dumplings. Tip: to ensure extra-crispy skin, unwrap the raw duck and leave it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. This will help the skin dry out and crisp up when roasted.

Bramborové knedlíky (Potato Dumplings)

2 cups mashed potatoes, cooled, unseasoned (about 2 large russets)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, or more if needed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons fine dry breadcrumbs

In a large bowl, thoroughly combine mashed potatoes, eggs and salt. Add enough flour to form a stiff dough. It will be a little sticky. Place a large saucepan of water on to boil. Meanwhile, with floured hands, shape the dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. Cook 10 dumplings at a time by dropping into the boiling water. Return the water to a boil and boil gently for about 12 minutes or until dumplings rise to the surface and test done when pulled apart with two forks. Drain in a colander or on a clean kitchen towel.

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, combine butter with breadcrumbs and cook until golden brown and crisp. Roll dumplings in this mixture and serve immediately.​​ Note: Instead of coating the dumplings in buttered breadcrumbs, they can be placed in a roasting pan and glazed with meat drippings from a roasted duck, or a pork, beef, lamb or veal roast.


Bramboráky (Potato Pancakes)

2 lbs potatoes
5 cloves of garlic
1 egg
1/2 cup milk, heated up
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp marjoram
Salt & pepper
1 tsp caraway seeds
Pork Lard

Grate the raw potatoes and put them in a mixing bowl. Pour the hot milk over the potatoes and mix. Add garlic, flour, eggs, marjoram, caraway seeds, and salt. Stir well to combine (the batter will be semi-liquid) .Melt the lard in a pan on medium heat and scoop the mixture onto the pan. Fry until the pancakes are golden brown on both sides. Before serving, drain the pancakes of excess grease with a paper towel.

Hraběnčiny řezy (Apple dessert)

Crust:
4 egg yolks
3/4  cup granulated sugar
1 1/3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup milk
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Filling:
5 medium apples, peeled, cored, sliced thin, and tossed with lemon juice
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely
1 teaspoon cinnamon ground

Meringue topping:
4 egg whites
1/2 cup coarse sugar

You'll also need:
Butter and flour to prepare jelly roll pan
Powdered sugar to dust the baked apple slice

Butter and flour a jelly roll pan. Preheat the oven to 3400F.

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg yolks, one at a time. Separately, mix flour and baking powder, then add that to the creamed mixture. Add the milk and work into a soft, smooth dough.

Separate a third of the dough, wrap it in plastic, and place it in the freezer until it gets hard enough to grate.

Press the remaining dough into a thin layer on the bottom of the prepared jelly roll pan.

Toss the apples with the cinnamon, 2 TBSP sugar, and walnuts together. Spread the apples over the dough.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Whisk in a tablespoon of wine vinegar. Carefully spread this meringue over the apple layer.

Take the remaining third of the dough out of the freezer and grate it coarsely with a cheese grater over the meringue so the little bits of dough dot the meringue which should still be visible underneath them.  Bake for 45 minutes at 340oF.

Footnotes:

1 From a translation of the Vladislav Grammaticus manuscript (dated 1469), made by Marvin Kantor

2 Deeds of Faith by John Mason Neale. London: J. And C. Mozley, 1860

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