Good King Wenceslas. December 2009. Introduction.
We’ve many wonderful evenings together, Christmas and otherwise, and tonight I thought we’d take a look at one of the Christmas carols that, at least from my standpoint, we know only from a distance. Most of this material is taken from Touchstone magazine, November/December 2009, “Looking for Wenceslaus.”
The song is “Good King Wenceslas.” Who was this king, why was he good, what in the world is going on here, and where did all this happen?
The location is what we today call the Czech Republic, what in our lifetime has been called Czechoslovakia, but in a particular part of that land called Bohemia.
As an aside, this is where we get our English word “bohemian,” suggesting a person who lives an unconventional lifestyle, often associated with artistic and literary types, often with others of the same bent.
The capital city of Prague is in Bohemia, and there is a statue of St. Wenceslas in the center of the city, in Wenceslas Square.
Who are these guys?
Brothers, born in Thessalonica in 827/826 to a noble family. Renounced wealth and position and became Catholic priests. Journeyed to the area we now know as Czechoslovakia as Christian missionaries. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented by Cyril to help teach and preach in the Slavonic language.
Wenceslas was famous for his piety and compassion toward the poor.
The chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states: “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.”
His brother became jealous, plotted to take the throne and had him murdered while on the way to church in 935, on the feast of Sts. Cosmos and Damien (twins, physicians, early Christian martyrs, feast day is September 26th). His last words were, “I forgive you, brother.”
Miracles began to be attributed to him almost immediately and he was canonized at some point following his death. He is the patron saint of the Czech people and the Czech Republic.
A page is a servant to a higher authority and in the song is accompanying the King on his evening walk.
We don’t get to see or hear the peasant, but we are told that he is there, and he is the object of the story.
The story is straightforward. The King is out for an evening walk, it’s bitterly cold, he sees a peasant who is apparently freezing and hungry. He tells his page to get food, wine and some logs for heat. The page says he is freezing to death and that he can go no further. The King bids him follow in his footsteps, which begin to generate a strange and comfortable heat which is able to keep them warm and to feed the peasant in comfort. This is the miracle.
By John Mason Neale in 1853
Wonderful Victorian language
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephan,
When the snow lay round about, cold and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight gathering winter fuel.
This verse tells us that it was cold and clear and that it was the Feast of Stephen, which is December 26th. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. The King is out for a walk and spots a poor peasant.
“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 St. Agnes fountain.”
The King asks the peasant if he knows who the peasant is and where he lives, and the page replies that he lives way out in the woods. A league is about 3 miles. St. Agnes of Rome, early Christian martyr at age 13, St. Agnes of Assisi, sister of St. Clare, 12 century Italy.
“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.
The King instructs the page to gather food, wine and logs for a fire, which they will provide for the peasant.
“Sire the night grows darker now, and the wind grows 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.”
The page tells the King he is freezing and can go no further. The King instructs the page to walk in his footsteps and he will be warmed.
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod that they saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men rejoice, wealth or rank possessing:
Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
Miraculously, the King’s footprints provided heat and warmth for the page. And the lesson is, we ourselves are blessed when we offer blessing to others less fortunate.
“Good King Wenceslas,” The Choir of York Minster.