Considering that Christmas is our culture’s ethical holiday, it is remarkable that only one traditional carol—and no modern holiday songs—celebrates ethical conduct. The one carol is “Good King Wenceslas,” and a strange one it is.
The lyrics are by J. M. Neale (1818-66), and were first published in 1853. Neale is a superstar in the Christmas Carol firmament: he also is responsible for the English lyrics of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” both of which you hear much more frequently than “Good King Wenceslas.” One reason is that the ethical carol tells a story in ten verses, and if you don’t sing them all, the story doesn’t make sense. There are very few recordings of the song in which all the verses are sung. Ten verses is also a lot to remember for any song. My elementary school used to teach the whole carol to sixth graders for the Christmas assembly, but let them have crib sheets. This was before it was decreed that allowing children to learn, sing and listen to some of the most lovely and memorable songs in Western culture was a form of insidious religious indoctrination.
Here is the whole carol:
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.
For one thing, “Good King Wenceslas” has little to do with Christmas Day, and doesn’t mention Jesus or the Nativity. The Feast of St. Stephen is also known as Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, December 26. It is a British Commonwealth tradition that never caught on in the U.S. In some European countries like Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, the day is celebrated as a Second Christmas Day.
A lot of people think “Boxing Day” refers to the post-Christmas clean-up of boxes and wrapping left over from Christmas gift exchanges. No. The term “Christmas-box” dates back to the 17th century, and refers to the tradition of giving tips, gifts, or Christmas bonuses, contained in a box, to postmen, tradesmen, errand-boys, and servants. It was the wealthy citizens’ treatment of servants that spawned the tradition: since servants would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, they were allowed to be with their families the next day, and each servant received a Christmas box to take home. Typically the boxes contained gifts, money and sometimes leftover food from the Christmas feast. In the U.S., Christmas bonuses are a vestige of Boxing Day.
Back to the king: nobody is sure where the particular story came from. He was Wenceslas I (907 – September 28, 935), also known as Václav the Good, the duke of Bohemia from 921, when he was 14, until his assassination in 935, when he was just 28. His younger brother, Boleslaus the Cruel, plotted the murder.
[Helpful tip : when your brother is named “the Cruel,” don’t turn your back.]
Poor Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, in part because of legends and tales relating to his generosity to the poor.
One historian, Cosmas of Prague, writing in 1119, claimed,
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, 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.
After several centuries later the legend was accepted as fact, just like in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which inspired an even catchier song, first sung by Gene Pitney—
—but that song has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, and I can’t find any evidence that Gene ever sang “Good King Wenceslas.” Never mind. Where was I? Oh, right, the Wenseslas legends…
After several hundred years, they were proclaimed as fact by Pope Pius II. Among the legends transmuted into fact was one about how a Count Radislas raised an army against Wenceslas, who tried to avoid bloodshed by making offers of compromise and peace. Radislas viewed the duke’s conciliatory stance as a sign of cowardice, and marched his forces into confrontation with the soldiers of Wenceslas. As the two armies faced each other, Wenceslas, to avoid unnecessary carnage, blood, challenged Radislas to individual combat, which the rebellious count accepted.
As Radislas advanced toward the duke on horseback, he saw two angels hovering on either side of Wenceslas. They cried out, “Stand off!” Stunned by the amazing sight and sound, and filled with a sudden respect for the duke’s virtue and holiness, Radislas dismounted, fell at the saint’s feet, and begged for a pardon. Wenceslas killed him on the spot.
Just kidding! He immediately forgave Radislas and embraced him. Of course he did! He was Good King Wenceslas!
Another legend, still current, claims that when Czechoslovakia (The Good King is the patron saint of the Czechs) is in existential peril, the equestrian statue of King Wenceslas (or Wenceslaus) in Wenceslaus Square….
will come to life, raise a sleeping army of knights, and slay all the enemies of the Czechs, thus bringing peace and prosperity to the land.
Why the statue chose to sit out the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 has never been explained. I’d think the Czechs would be still a little peeved about it, though.
The carol itself has its puzzles. Why does the king think a poor man who lives by the forest needs wood? Is the main point of the story that he brings food to a poor man, or that he has the brilliant idea of letting his freezing page re-use his foot prints? And why would there be any warmth in the snow?
Nonetheless, the carol does extol kindness and charity. If only it didn’t spoil the ethical exhortation by promising a reward; ethical acts are their own reward. It isn’t altruistic conduct if you expect to benefit personally. As we know, Wenceslas’s rward was to be killed by his brother before he was 30.
Take it, Bing..