I finally found out how to spell “Wenceslas”, although I still can’t say it easily and I will still be using copy/paste on that name.
I have to admit that for a long time I have wondered why “Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas song. What words I’ve made out for this song I’ve never understood. So for this year’s Christmas edition of Sing Me A Story I’m finally going to learn what I can of this song’s history and the full lyrics. It’s a personal journey and you get to come along with me.
I’m not sure what history to throw on this prior to research. I know nothing about this song and I don’t know of any one version that stands up in my mind or the general public as the definitive version. I’m basically choosing whatever lyric video YouTube or the poster hasn’t taken down yet that comes up first and readable. So let’s do this.
Before I go to the research I’m wondering if this isn’t a parable of sorts to follow Jesus, following in his path keeping us safe from the coldness of sin and being apart from God. But let’s see what Wikipedia and The Telegraph have to say.
A carol for the Feast of St Stephen or Boxing Day, with no mention of the Nativity.
Wenceslas was a 10th-century Catholic Duke of Bohemia also known as Vaclav the Good, and was martyred after being assassinated by his wicked brother, Boleslaw the Bad. Wenceslas’s remains are interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague, and he was recently made patron saint of the Czech Republic. His Saint’s Day is September 28.
The verse is the invention of J M Neale (1818-66), and it was first published in 1853.
Boxing Day (another name for the Feast Of Steven or St. Steven’s Day) takes place the day after Christmas. Let me grab Wikipedia for my fellow Americans:
Boxing Day is a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers, in the United Kingdom, Barbados, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, Bermuda, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other former British colonies. Today, Boxing Day is the bank holiday that generally takes place on 26 December.
In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed Day of Goodwill in 1994. Due to the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, the day is known as St. Stephen’s Day to Catholics, as well as in Italy, Finland, and Alsace and Moselle in France. It is also known as both St. Stephen’s Day and the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day in Ireland. In some European countries, most notably Germany, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia, 26 December is celebrated as the Second Christmas Day.
The Telegraph suggests that the carol is to promote giving, although it does ask why you’d bring pine logs to someone living in a fortress by the mountain. Also, my theory about the footprints is just my theory.
The tune selected by Neale, “Tempus Adest Floridum”, comes from a collection Piae Cantiones, published in 1582, where it is a spring hymn, clearly intended to accompany energetic dancing. Its roots are thought to be Scandinavian.
But what is the history of our “good king”? Back to the Wiki to find that answer.
Wenceslas was son of Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia from the Přemyslid dynasty. His father was raised in a Christian milieu through his own father, Borivoj I of Bohemia, who was converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius. His mother Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief of Havolans and was baptized at the time of her marriage.
In 921, when Wenceslas was thirteen, his father died and he was brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who raised him as a Christian. A dispute between the fervently Christian regent and her daughter-in-law drove Ludmila to seek sanctuary at Tetín Castle near Beroun. Drahomíra, who was trying to garner support from the nobility, was furious about losing influence on her son and arranged to have Ludmila strangled at Tetín on September 15, 921. Wenceslas is usually described as exceptionally pious and humble, and a very educated and intelligent young man.
According to some legends, having regained control of her son, Drahomíra set out to convert him to the old pagan religion. According to other legends, she was a Christian herself; however, very little is known about her rule.
That’s the past for you. There’s a lot of legend attached to Wenceslas to the point that the carol is itself a legend. Even his death contained a legend that Wikipedia wanted a citation for:
In September 935 (in older sources 929) a group of nobles—allied with Wenceslas’ younger brother Boleslav—plotted to kill the Duke. After Boleslav invited Wenceslas to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Stará Boleslav, three of Boleslav’s companions—Tira, Česta and Hněvsa—murdered Wenceslas on his way to church after a quarrel between him and his brother. As he fell down, Wenceslas murmured words of forgiveness for his brother. Boleslav thus succeeded him as the Duke of Bohemia.
According to Cosmas’ Chronicle, one of Boleslav’s sons was born on the day of Wenceslas’ death, and because of the ominous circumstance of his birth the infant was named Strachkvas, which means “a dreadful feast”.
There are discrepancies in the records regarding the date of St Wenceslas’ death. It has been argued that Wenceslas’ remains were transferred to St Vitus’ Church in 932, ruling out the later date; however, the year 935 is now favored by historians as the date of his murder.
He was never actually a king. As the cults that came up around his posted numerous legends, one declared true by Pope Pius The Second, he was given the title posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I “Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries” according to Wikipedia. But what else can we learn about the carol’s history?
The tune is that of “Tempus adest floridum” (“It is time for flowering”), a 13th-century spring carol in 76 76 Doubled Trochaicmetre first published in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones in 1582. Piae Cantiones is a collection of seventy-four songs compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen, the Protestant headmaster of Turku Cathedral School, and published by Theodoric Petri, a young Catholic printer. The book is a unique document of European songs intended not only for use in church, but also schools, thus making the collection a unique record of the late medieval period.
A text beginning substantially the same as the 1582 “Piae” version is also found in the German manuscript collection Carmina Burana as CB 142, where it is substantially more carnal; CB 142 has clerics and virgins playing the “game of Venus” (goddess of love) in the meadows, while in the Piae version they are praising the Lord from the bottom of their hearts.
The carol has no connection to the original song, making this an early example of “sampling” centuries before rap music hit the scene. It was also used for Joseph S. Cook’s “Mary Gently Laid Her Child”. That music got around.
John Mason Neale published the carol “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, although he may have written his carol some time earlier, since he carried on the legend of St. Wenceslas (the basis of this story) in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Neale was known for his devotion to High Church traditions. According to older Czech sources, Neale’s lyrics are a translation of a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda, written in Czech, German and Latin.
The Wikipedia entry offers a minor translation for those unfamiliar with the King’s English version in the video I chose.
On the night of St Stephen’s feast-day (26 Dec.) Good King Wenceslas looked out; snow lay all around, deep, and crisp, and level.
The moon shone brightly though it was bitterly freezing when a poor man came into view, gathering firewood.
“Come here, page, and stand next to me; tell me, if you know, who is that peasant over there? Where does he live and what is his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives at least a league [a variable measure of distance between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 miles (4–7 1/2 km)] from here at the foot of the mountain next to the fence at the edge of the forest, by St Agnes‘s Fountain [presumably a local landmark].”
“Bring me meat and bring me wine; bring me pine logs here; you and I will see him eat when we carry them there.”
The page and the king set out forth together through the loud crying of the wind and the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind is growing stronger. I don’t know why but my heart is weak; I can’t go any farther.”
“Take note of my footprints (in the snow), my good page, and step in them bravely. You’ll find that the winter cold won’t chill you as much.”
He stepped in his master’s footprints in the snow. The ground felt warm in the saint’s footprints.
So, Christian folk, you can be sure, if you have wealth or power and do good for the poor, you yourselves shall be blessed.’
See, the rich CAN do good with their money through charity and still be blessed, either in this life or the next. And still get to be rich.
Apparently this carol isn’t without negative music critics, but not the ones you’d think. The original song is connected to Easter, thus Spring, while “Good King Wenceslas” takes place in the dead of winter on Boxing Day. This didn’t sit well with some critics in the 1920s. One critic even called it the”product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol” and that the ” ‘ponderous moral doggerel’ does not fit the light-hearted dance measure of the original tune, and that if performed in the correct manner ‘sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words;’ a similar problem has arisen with the song O Christmas Tree, whose tune has been used for Maryland, My Maryland, The Red Flag, and other non-related songs.” And you thought people got mad at Vanilla Ice for using the background music from “Under Pressure” in “Ice Ice Baby”.
So I need to take back years of complaints about this song. It actually is a proper Christmas carol, going over the message of Christmas and Christ’s message of charity (and I still think the part with the page following Wenceslas’s footsteps in the snow is an allegory to at least follow the king’s example, if not to follow the King Of Kings). And that’s why this article series exists, because when I do them I learn so much about a song that we all just thought was a good short tale at best and something nice to listen to at worst.