Good King Wenceslas

My wife’s favorite Christmas carol is Good King Wenceslas.  It is not sung that often, which is surprising because it has a very catchy tune.  

Maybe the reason you don’t hear it so much is because “Christmas” is never mentioned.  Neither is Jesus, God, or anything else connected to the Christmas story.

It is a ballad about a king who makes a late night journey on foot through a snowstorm to give alms to the poor.  He takes with him a servant who is about to give up due to the storm but is encouraged to continue by following in the footprints in the snow made by the king.  The song ends with a rousing:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing!

The carol has always left me with lots of questions.  Who was King Wenceslas?  Why is there no mention of Christmas?

It turns out that there was a Lord Wenceslas who was posthumously elevated to the rank of King.  He lived in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the mid-900s.  One of the reasons that Christmas isn’t mentioned in this carol about him might be because his Christian roots were a little shaky.  While his grandfather had been converted to Christianity by Saint Cyril, his mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief.

His father ruled Bohemia and when he died, there was a power vacuum and his mother was banished and his grandmother assassinated.   

After a while, however, the people decided that things hadn’t been so bad under Wenceslas’s father so they wanted Wenceslas to be their ruler.  His mother was brought back and ruled as regent until Wenceslas turned 18.  They apparently weren’t close because once he turned 18 he promptly banished his mother for a second time.

In order to keep his brother Boleslaus happy, Wenceslas then divided the country in half with him.  This worked for a while, but Boleslaus got greedy and wanted the whole country.  So, on September 28th 935, as he was about to enter a church for worship, three nobles stabbed Wenceslas before his own brother then ran him through with a lance.

Wenceslas was immediately regarded as a martyr and a saint.  Emperor Otto gave him the title of King a few years later.  September 28th is now his Saint’s Day.  Today he is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and is known for his alms giving. 

If you ever travel to Prague, you can visit Wenceslas Square and you will find a large statue of him there (which legend says will come to life if the Republic is ever threatened!).

As for the carol, it was written in 1853 by John Mason Neale to a 13th century tune.  There is no mention of Christmas because it was written for the Feast of Saint Stephen; which is mentioned in the carol.  St. Stephen, you may remember, was the first martyr of the Christian faith as recorded in the Book of Acts, having been stoned to death while Saul (soon to be the Apostle Paul) held his cloak.  The Feast of Saint Stephen is always the day after Christmas.

As a side note, those of Eastern European descent will know that Vyacheslav is a common first name.  Wenceslas is a Latinized version of that name.

So there you go!  Something to think about next time you hear that carol about Good King Wenceslas tramping through the snow on the Feast of Stephen to give alms to the poor.  Quite a story!  And it still contains some good lessons for us today.  Here are the words:

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen,

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight,

Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?’

‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,

Underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence,

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,

Bring me pine logs hither,

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together,

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my 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

Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing!

In Christ,

–Rev. Dominic