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. Continue reading