GOOD KING WENCESLAS written in 1853
“Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Czech king going on a journey, and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia.
Wenceslas was one of the early Christian rulers in Bohemia. When he was 5 years old, his father was killed in battle and his mother became the head of state, ruling the country with a firm hand. During this time, his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). Wenceslas became king when he turned 18, and was known as a wise and diplomatic ruler.
The story in the song may have been fictitious; the true-life story of Wenceslas was certainly nothing to sing about at Christmas time. Wenceslas was invited to a banquet where his enemies had planned to assassinate him. Though weapons were drawn, the official historian wrote, “God did not permit them to strike”. The next morning, Wenceslas went to church, where the plotters were waiting. At the age of 22, he was murdered on the church steps.
Wenceslas sought to rule as Christ would rule. He helped the poor. He improved the cultural standards of the people. And today, in Prague, though it has been more than 1,000 years since his death and though the country has passed through various governments, he is still remembered by a statue of him riding on horseback; it stands in the middle of Wenceslas Square.
John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was strongly high church in his sympathies, and had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a 14 years’ inhibition by his bishop. So, Neale translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a devotional commentary on the Psalms. But, he is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and medieval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns.
In 1853, Neale wrote the lyrics to this song, in collaboration with his music editor, Thomas Helmore. Neale’s lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in 1582.
I’ve never sung this song in a church service. I’ve never even heard it sung in a church service. It would not be considered a hymn, but a carol. It teaches nothing of Christ or His birth. But, it does seem to speak of a Christian lifestyle lived by a Christian man.
Why is this one of my favorite “Christmas songs”? Because it’s such a quirky song, sung in a quirky way… and there are days I can’t get it out of my head!
And I can also remember days, growing up in Grand Haven, MI, when my dad would make tracks in the snow for me to follow…
Read this Christmas song, and – today – live a life filled with deeds worthy of being written about.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, upon 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 site, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page and stand by me! I you know it telling:
yonder man who is he, where and what his dwelling?”
“Sir, he lives a good way hence, underneath the mountain;
right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
you and I will see him dine, when we take them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together,
through the wild wind’s loud lament, and the bitter weather.
“Sir, the night is darker now, and the wind grows stronger;
fails my heart – I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps well my page, follow in them boldly:
you shall find the winter’s rage, chills your blood less coldly.”
In his masters steps he trod, where the snow lay even,
strong to do the will of God, in the hope of Heaven:
therefore, Christians, all be sure, grace and wealth possessing,
you that now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.