December 22, 2012

A popular Christmas carol is ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ but who was King Wenceslas, and why was he ‘good?


The carol combines historical fact and speculation.  Wenceslas is likely based around a 10th century Bohemian duke (and later saint) named St. Vaceslav (translated to Wenceslas in English), who supported the spread of Christianity and was known for his personal piety and charity.  He died in tragic circumstances (at the hands of his brother, usurping power), eventually being elevated to sainthood.  In the 19th century, an Englishman named John Mason Neele, wrote the lyrics which would become ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ based on the legends of his good deeds.  The lyrics were paired with 13th century music Neele found in an early book of songs.


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


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