Today I learned a bit about a Christmas hymn that I’ve never paid much attention to, though it’s in a few hymnals and most books of carols, and you’ll hear instrumental versions of the tune throughout the Christmas season. Who was “Good King Wenceslas”, and why should we care about him during Christmas?
This hymn text was written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), an Anglican minister who I’ve mentioned here before. Neale had a passion for the ancient church and what the contemporary church could learn from it. He had a special interest in the medieval roots of church music, and worked to translate ancient Greek, Latin, and Syrian hymns into English. In fact, besides the hymns of his that I’ve written about before, he also gave us “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” (a fourteenth-century text set to a fourteenth-century tune) and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” (a ninth-century text set to a fifteenth-century tune).
“Good King Wenceslas”, however, is not a translation of an ancient hymn, but rather a poem written by Neale to tell the story of a man who followed Christ’s direction to care for the poor in a radical way.
Good King Wenceslas
Wenceslas was born in the early 900s in Bohemia, which is a region in modern-day Czech Republic, (and which I‘ve talked about before as the homeland of the Moravian Church). His father passed away and he assumed the title of Duke at age 18, and right from the start, Wenceslas was an unusual sort of ruler.
He made it geopolitical relations a priority, especially with surrounding countries such as neighboring Germany. He believed in social justice, reforming the judicial system, reducing the number of death sentences and reigning in the arbitrary and absolute power of judges. And as a devout Christian, he encouraged the building of churches.
But Wenceslas is today the patron saint of the Czech state largely due to his selfless care of the poor, which gave him a reputation for heroic goodness driven by his Christian faith. He reportedly cut firewood for orphans and widows and carried them on his own shoulders through the snow. An author in the early 1100s wrote of Wenceslas,
rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
We see a similar tale of radical, selfless care for the poor in the text of this hymn, which Neale wrote to honor a godly man of the early Christian church.
“Good King Wenceslas” begins with Wenceslas observing a poor man gathering fuel on a cold and snowy St. Stephen’s Day (December 26). He calls his page to his side and asks who the poor man is, and it turns out the man lives quite far away. Wenceslas decides that he will gather food, wine, and firewood, and travel to the man’s house through a bitter blizzard and serve him dinner. And of course, the poor page, as servant of Wenceslas, comes along to help.
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 you know 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 food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
In stanza 4, the page starts to get cold and tired, and isn’t sure he can continue– so Wenceslas, ever merciful, instructs his servant to walk behind him so that Wenceslas can break the blowing wind and snow, and so that he can walk in Wenceslas’ footsteps. (For my southern friends who may never have plodded through several feet of snow, it gets exhausting pretty quickly because your feet sink into drifts, and you have to pull each foot out to take your next step. If you can walk inside the footsteps of someone else, you’re doing half the work.) Not only is this Duke showing Christ’s love by bringing this poor man a feast, and taking it to him through a blizzard, but he’s also selflessly bearing the brunt of the weather for his poor servant.
“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 now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”
The moral of the tale is found in the final stanza: it doesn’t matter whether you’re a duke or a servant, if you have all the riches in the world– “you who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
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, while God’s gifts possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
It makes complete sense now for this hymn to have become associated with Christmas. Besides the allusion to the snowy drifts of the Feast of St. Stephen that reminds us of a “white Christmas”, Wenceslas truly lived out Jesus’ command in Luke 14:13-14:
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
… and the Christmas season is one of the most important times for us to be aware of those who are going without, for those who might not have anyone to share the holidays with, for those who are in need of clothes, food, or love. This hymn is the story of a wealthy, high-ranking man who trekked through a blizzard and drifting snow to bring dinner to a poor neighbor. It’s a shame that so few people know Wenceslas’ story, or the text of this hymn, because he truly embodied the kind of radical, selfless Christianity that has the power to transform our world.
In real life, Wenceslas’ story ends rather abruptly: he was murdered by his pagan brother as he was leaving for church one morning. He was venerated as a martyr, and soon after his death, he was canonized as a saint. His feast day is celebrated on September 28.
You’ll note, also, that Wenceslas was never in fact a king. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred on him the regal dignity and title, and he has been known ever since in legend and song as “Good King Wenceslas”.