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 him 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
This is one of the few Carols that I know off by heart, and it follows Away in a manger and Once in Royal David’s City in popularity with children, probably because they empathize with the page boy. Yet the pundits hate it. “Ponderous moral doggerel imposed upon a light-hearted spring dance measure,” says one and “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” says another, “this only shows how ridiculous they are” says a third.
Well! I say “Boo!” to the Bah! Humbug! School of Christmas Criticism. This is a fun example of what Christmas is really about - giving. And it’s really a Boxing Day Carol, so we can leave all the shepherds and Angels alone until next year.
Boxing Day, for ignorant Americans, is the day after Christmas Day, and the feast day of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In England (though not in Scotland), in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia it is a public holiday. There are many traditions about how it all started and if you ‘Google' it you will find five or six, but they all surround the idea of charitable giving. The most plausible concerns the servants in the great houses of England who had to work on Christmas Day. They were given the next day off to spend with their families. Early on Boxing Day morning the servants lined up to receive a box of leftovers from the feast. It became a tradition to give ‘Christmas Boxes’ to the poor. Nowadays, these include the postman, the paper-boy, the gardener and garbage collector, and the ‘Christmas Box’ is a fiver or two in an envelope.
Good King Wenceslas is exactly within that tradition.
In 1853, John Mason Neale chose Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity. For a tune, Neale picked up a spring carol, originally sung with the Latin text ‘Tempus adest floridum’ or ‘Spring has unwrapped her flowers’. This original spring tune was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church and school songs.
Wenceslas (or more properly Václav) was the Duke of Bohemia who was murdered in 929 (or possibly 935) AD by his wicked younger brother, Boleslav. As the song indicates, he was a good, honest, and strongly principled man. The song expresses his high moral character in describing King Wenceslas braving a fierce storm in order to help feed a poor neighbour. Wenceslas believed that his Christian faith needed to be put into action in practical ways. Wenceslas was brought up with a strong Christian faith by his grandmother St. Ludmila. Wenceslas’ own mother, Drahomira, however, joined forces with an anti-Christian group that murdered Wenceslas’ grandmother, and seized power in Bohemia. Two years later in 922 AD, the evil Drahomira was deposed, and Good King Wenceslas became the ruler. He became Bohemia’s most famous martyr and patron saint. His picture appeared on Bohemian coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas became the symbol of Czech independence.
Why does Good King Wenceslas have such a deep and lasting impact on its hearers? The language is strange, but being strange it is memorable. Even the “fu-el’/cru-el’” rhyme is unforgettable. The phrase ‘Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer’ really speaks to all of us, as does the remedy: ‘In His master's steps he trod’. We can do nothing without the aid of our Master.
Who was John Mason Neale? He was born in London, his parents being Revd. Cornelius Neale and Susanna Neale, daughter of John Mason Good. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was affected by the Oxford Movement and helped to found the Cambridge Camden Society (afterwards known as the Ecclesiological Society). Though he took Holy Orders in 1841, ill-health prevented his settling in England until 1846, when he became warden of Sackville College, an alms-house at East Grinstead, an appointment which he held till his death.
In 1854 Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick. Many Anglicans in his day, however, were very suspicious of anything suggestive of Roman Catholicism. Only nine years earlier, John Henry Newman had encouraged Romish practices in the Anglican Church, and had ended up joining the Romanists himself. This encouraged the suspicion that anyone like Neale was an agent of the Vatican, assigned to destroy the Anglican Church by subverting it from within. Once Neale was attacked and mauled at a funeral of one of the Sisters. From time to time unruly crowds threatened to stone him or to burn his house. He received no honour or preferment in England, and his doctorate was bestowed by Trinity College (Connecticut). However, his basic goodness eventually won the confidence of many who had fiercely opposed him, and the Sisterhood of St. Margaret survived and prospered.
Neale was strongly high church in his sympathies, and had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a fourteen years' inhibition by his bishop. Neale translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms. However, he is best known as a hymn writer and translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval 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. His works include:
All Glory, Laud, and Honour, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen. Neale died on August 6, 1866.
The tune is to "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("It is time for flowering"), a 13th-century spring carol, first published in the Swedish/Finnish Piae Cantiones, 1582. The carol is also found in Carmina Burana as CB 142. In 1853, G. J. R. Gordon, Her Majesty's Envoy and Minister at Stockholm, gave a rare copy of the 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones to Neale. The book was entirely unknown in England at that time.
Neale translated some of the carols and hymns, and in 1853, he published 12 carols in Carols for Christmas-tide (with music from Piae Cantiones). In 1854, he published 12 more in Carols for Easter-tide.
Wenceslaus is the patron saint of the Czech people and the Czech Republic. His feast day is September 28. Since the year 2000, this day is a public holiday in the Czech Republic, celebrated as Czech Statehood Day. In his honour, a statue of Wenceslaus clad in armour on horseback stands in Prague's Václavské náměstí (Wenceslaus Square).