With its seasonal timeliness and surfeit of roles, including those for which no lines need be uttered, the Nativity is not surprisingly a favorite vehicle to showcase the talents of the young members of boy choirs and Cub Scout dens. Save for the Virgin Mary and, if she appears at all, the innkeeper’s wife, all the roles are men and boys: Joseph, the Wise Men, the shepherds, Herod and his guards. But alas, some boy must take on the role of Mary.
The den mother of my troop, who happened to be my own mother, had written the names of the characters on slips of paper and put them into my father’s fedora. Holding the hat above our heads she asked us to draw out our roles. My friend Anthony went first and pulled out a shepherd. Bobby, a classmate who had a denture for a missing front tooth that he’d sometimes slide out for our entertainment, was Joseph. By the time my turn came, the only strips of paper left in the hat were for Balthazar, the innkeeper, and the Virgin Mary.
I unfolded the paper, hoping it would bear the name of the young scholar from Arabia but instead discovered I was to play the mother of God. Immediately, I pictured my father and uncles in the audience. I feared that they’d think I wanted the part, that I had even auditioned for it, which was far from the truth; even though I sensed I was different from my brothers and cousins, I never had the slightest urge to dress up in my mother’s clothes. But they wouldn’t know that. They’d laugh. Not to my face, of course, but later after the show, after I’d gone to bed, when they’d be sitting around the dining room table with their beer and sandwiches, then they’d laugh at me.
I could say nothing. The roles had been given fairly, and I had been unlucky. I tried to put the play out of mind. But the next day, when I came home from school, I saw my mother sewing the costume I would wear and the image of myself on stage returned. A white robe hung on a hangar perched on the half-opened door to the living room, and she was stitching the long blue veil I would wear on top of it. I recognized the costume; she had modeled it on the statuette of the Virgin Mary that stood on top of our buffet. I saw myself in these robes, the spotlight shining on my face as I clasped my hands kneeling before the infant Jesus with my uncles smirking at me in the audience, and knew then I couldn’t do it.
“I don’t want to be Mary.” I said. “I don’t want to wear girl’s clothes.”
“It’s the theater, sweetheart, you’re just playing a role,” she said
“But I don’t want to.”
“Really, Stephen, it’s a costume. It’s like the cassock you wear when you’re serving mass,” she said. My mother, never a religious woman, had little truck with the Church, which she viewed with the suspicion of a mother who feared it would claim her son for the priesthood.
“It’s not the same!” I said. I liked being an altar boy. I liked the pageantry and ringing of bells, the smells of incense, though I was still too young to wield a censer, the prayers and responsories Anthony had helped me learn. None of the public school kids who hung out in the park near the church would say a word when I walked out in the procession, dressed in my cassock and holding high the banner of Christ. Father Aniello, who looked more like a boxer than a priest, made sure of that. It wasn’t the same as playing the Virgin Mary.
“Please don’t make me.” I said.
Eventually my mother relented. She called Anthony’s mother and asked if he could switch parts with me. “He’s afraid he won’t learn the lines,” she said by way of excuse.
She insisted on finishing the costume, though. In the days that followed, it was a constant reminder of the shame I felt for making my mother lie for me. Even after she had brought the costume over to Anthony’s mother, the statuette remained, a talisman in reverse that instead of safeguarding me reminded me of my unworthiness to be saved. “That could have been me,” I thought with relief as I looked at the painted plaster figurine, and then realized, “that should have been me.”
Blond and tall for his age, with blue-gray eyes that attested to his Slavic ancestry, Anthony made an unusual Mary, but played his role well and without complaint. I watched him on stage from my shepherd’s corner, his glasses sticking out from under the veil my mother had sewn, and remembered sitting in his room as he walked me through the paces of the liturgy I was preparing to serve.
“The most important thing is ringing the bell,” he’d said. “The priest won’t care if you mumble the prayers, but he’ll be pissed off if you screw up the bells. Everybody notices the bells.”
Anthony lived on the other side of the city, where the buildings were sheathed in asphalt shingles instead of sandstone, and the stoops were low and bracketed with spindly iron railings. He was a year older than me but had been an altar boy long enough to be serving at weddings and funerals, big jobs where you’d get tips, he said.
“That was kind of fun,” he said when we met up the day after for another coaching session.
I thought he’d ask me how I had managed to learn all the words for the prayers at Mass but hadn’t t been able to master the less taxing lines of Mary. But he didn’t.
“Yeah, it was,” I said, but it was a lie. I was too immersed in my shame to enjoy the show. The only part I liked were the carols, though I was disappointed that we didn’t sing, “Good King Wenceslaus.” It was my favorite carol, and not only because it mentioned my name.
Most know the story up to the point where the Duke—as I learned later the title of king was only posthumously bestowed on him—calls for his page to gather food and wine that they take to a poor man who’s out on the bitterly cold night gathering wood and kindling.
The page falters as they make their way over the snow-covered field, Over the “rude wind’s wild lament”, he tells the Duke he fears he can go no further. And the Duke says to him:
Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod.
I loved the image of the page walking barefoot in the warmth of the Duke’s footsteps. As I only later discovered, he had a name, Podiven. He is described in an early 11th century account as the Duke’s beloved chamber valet, a young man who remained at his lord’s side until the Duke was murdered by his brother in a coup. The grief-stricken Podiven was eventually murdered as well. Both are buried in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.
I had no Duke in whose footsteps I could tread. The sexual landscape of my early adolescence was as barren as the heath on which Wenceslaus and Podiven set out on. I had countless role models of giving and devoted men, my father being one of them, of brave men who sacrificed their lives for others, knights and poets and great thinkers. I had the heroes of comics and A Tale of Two Cities, whose deeds I could admire and whose lives I could seek to emulate.
But I had no hero or protector, no Father Aniello for this other part of me, the one I had not yet come to understand, other than to realize it set me apart from my cousins who roughhoused with their fathers and played football and talked about girls in a way that baffled me. I could ask for no one’s protection without revealing myself, even if I did not fully know what that revelation meant. But there was something about me, I knew: the way I liked hanging around my young rebel uncle, and the pleasure I felt playing when Ricky held me in his arms as we wrestled and played king of the stoop.
I had no stories that could give shape to my differentness and help me understand it. It was all fuzzy at the time, like the Holy Spirit. The stories would come a few years later in books I read, and a Wenceslaus of sorts would appear with the arrival of a distant cousin at our summer house, a young man who lived on his own in the city.
It was safer to remain in the background, a shepherd with a bit part. The role suited me at the time. I was already a sort of detached observer and I embraced the role. I had books instead of goats to return to, and had found friends among the other shepherds at school, Anthony included.
To my good fortune this subterfuge didn’t last. The fuzziness of my differentness lifted when I became aware that it lay not in some quality of mind but was instead inscribed in my very body. Desire was incarnate.
Neither Father Aniello nor the nuns at school told us of the story behind my favorite carol. I doubt if they knew it. Nor did they know that the melody of Wenceslaus’ song that we sing at Christmas was in fact taken from Tempus adest floridum, a 13th century carol celebrating spring, the “awakening season.”
It is a song that speaks to our need for revival, In its own way, this spring carol is a hymn of coming out, the time when “reason learns the heart’s decrees”:
Spring has now unwrapped the flowers,
Day is fast reviving
Life in all her growing powers
Towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold,
Winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould,
Now make up for lost time
I’ve relied on Kittredge Cherry’s account of Wenceslaus and Podiven that is posted on her wonderful “Jesus in Love” blog. Podiven’s burial at St. Vaclav is not mentioned in the tourist guides to Prague, though an account of the burial is provided in Lisa Wolverton’s translation of The Chronicle of the Czechs by Cosmas of Prague.
Readers may be interested in hearing a recording of the original spring carol. The Latin text is on the Cyber Hymnal, the English translation on the Sing with Emily blog, a treasure trove of illustrated song.
Featured image: Detail of Blessed Podiven following in the footsteps of St. Vaclav, Museum of the Bohemian Karst, photograph by Patrik Pařízek, published on Novinky.cz.