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Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas

One of my earliest recollections of Christmas is the carol “Good King Wenceslas”. There’s also an image that comes to mind from a school music book of a drawing of the said king looking out from his castle towards a pauper struggling through the snow ‘deep and crisp and even’. Describing snow as ‘deep and crisp and even’ seems to have made a lasting impression on my young mind which had only experienced the heat of an Australian Christmas until that time. The rest of the carol’s lyrics have always been a bit of a mystery to me.

This year, in a fit of (another) pique at the commercialisation of Christmas I thought I’d scrap all those carols extolling the virtues of Santa and Rudolf, and settle for a more traditional tune. “Good King Wenceslas” sprang into view, with its mysteries still waiting to be discovered after a lifetime buried under the deep and crisp and even snow.

Wikipedia came to my rescue:’”Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the modern Czech language “Václav”.

‘In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the “Wenceslas” lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853. Neale’s lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.’

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 shall 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 shall find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s step 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.

So the carol is more about December 26th (Boxing Day) than Christmas Day where we are urged to give to the poor rather than receive gifts ourselves. Could John Mason Neale, the hymnwriter, have been fed up with the commercialisation of Christmas even in 1853?

Happy Christmas (and Boxing Day) everyone!