For the 2nd Day of Christmas, I thought I would cover a slightly unorthodox carol. “Good King Wenceslas” is set “on the Feast of Stephen” (which is today), and there are so many fun things about it. The song, which was actually included in a book of Christmas Carols in 1853, was written by the popular and prolific hymn-writer John Mason Neale. Neale was an Anglican priest and scholar, as well a sort of cultivator of ancient hymnody. He wrote original pieces, but his most famous works are all translations (the Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal has 13 hymns with Neale listed as author, but all but two are translations). You’ve probably never noticed, but it was Neale who translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain,” “The Day of Resurrection,” and “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.” Not a bad resume, to say the least. “Good King Wenceslas” was an original, however, and, though lovable in its way, it is not on the same level as those treasures just listed. In fact, there’s a fairly large body of criticism of “Good King Wenceslas” out there, upset with both its hagiographical lyrics and its barbarous tune-pairing.
“King Wenceslas” is based on an actual historical figure, Saint Wenceslaus, known to his fellow Czechs as Vaclav (Vats-slaf) I, Duke of Bohemia. Vaclav I was a 10th century Bohemian Christian in a time when central Europe was still being won over to Christianity. His father was said to have been converted by the famed Cyril and Methodius, and Vaclav helped defend the Christian parts of Bohemia from the Magyars, the Saxons, and the other pagan Slavs. We really don’t know all that much about Vaclav I, but he did have the fortune of being assassinated early in his life. Only 18 when he assumed the throne and murdered by a family member at about the age of 28, the tragic loss of such a young leader, and a Christian nobleman who defended Christians at that, was the natural catalyst for legend. He was considered a martyr almost immediately and was canonized a few centuries later. Legends cropped up telling about Vaclav’s piety, and he became a sort of type of the medieval rex justus. Considered the patron saint of Prague, his skull is now carried throughout the city for veneration. His story became so popular that Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor, posthumously promoted Vaclav to “king,” thus giving us the famous “King Wenceslas” we know today.
As all good Anglo-Catholics, John Mason Neale loved early-medieval folklore and hagiography, and he had no problem taking an old legend and adding enough particulars to craft a specific account of Wenceslas as moral exemplar. With an appropriate absence of scruple, he paired his new creation with a Finnish Spring dance, an Easter Hymn to be exact. Its massive popularity has driven the experts mad ever since. Here’s just one example of outrage, from the editors of the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols:
This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol…Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call “doggerel”, and Bullen condemns as “poor and commonplace to the last degree”. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting…not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time.
Of course for all their tough talk, Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw, and Ralph Vaughan Williams lacked the brass to do much more than whine about it, and so “Good King Wenceslas” is with us still today, very much alive and well.
The lyrics to the song tell the story of King Wenceslas’s encounter with a poor and needy man on the 2nd Day of Christmas. The poor man is out in the night cold collecting firewood when King Wenceslas sees him from his castle window. The king inquires about the man, and it turns out that his page knows where he lives. The page says that the journey is too far and the winter weather is too harsh to go to help the man, but Wenceslas will have none of it. Taking some of his very own meat, wine, and pine logs, the king leads the way to the poor man’s home in order to bestow the gifts. Wenceslas’s holiness is so exuding that his footprints leave beds of heat amid the snow, amazing his page and beckoning all who sing the carol to mark the same footsteps and to “tread in them boldly.” The carol concludes with the line “Ye who now shall bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
For all its flaws, “Good King Wenceslas” is no more harmful than most folk stories, and it’s certainly less fantastic than our modern Santa Claus fare. Of course, I’m certainly glad that it’s not in my hymnal, and I think you should be sure to leave it out of all of your holy convocations as well, but I don’t mind keeping the carol’s memory alive for a bit longer in the lay-world. It’s got great medieval trivia all about it, and that tune really is delightful. Maybe Neale knew what he was doing after all.
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, tho’ 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 shall 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, 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 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.