Friday, December 12, 2014

Good King Wenceslas

Christmas-time is generally regarded as the season of giving--and today in Western countries, sadly, the season of buying. But how many of our Christmas gifts involve real sacrifice on our part, beyond the mere purchase price? How often, at this (or any) time of year, do we venture outside our comfort zone and emulate Jesus' example of bestowing real help, person-to-person, upon someone of society's lowliest, poorest individuals? Do we set examples to our young people of real charity, or only of tokenistic materialism?

The repertoire of traditional Christmas hymns and carols includes at least one that exemplifies, in the most endearing way, what Christmas--and being Christian--is all about. You've almost certainly heard the carol Good King Wenceslas, and maybe even sung it. But do you know the compelling story behind the carol?  Have you carefully read and thought about the words' meaning and significance?


Good King Wenceslas tells the story of a king who, with his page, ventures out of the palace to bring alms to a poor peasant whom he has seen gathering firewood on the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, December 26). During the journey, the page is about to give up the struggle against the cold and stormy weather, but is enabled to continue by the warmth miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow.

This legend is in turn based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935 A.D.). He presided over Bohemia (which today forms part of the Czech Republic) from 921 until his assassination in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel (c. 915-972 A.D.). During his short reign, Wenceslas strove to alleviate the oppression of serfs, reform the judicial system, and spread Christianity throughout his country. Wenceslas' martyrdom (his brother was backed by pagan factions), and the popularity of several biographies of him that circulated widely within a few decades of his death, gave rise to a reputation on his part for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to sainthood, posthumously declared king, and seen as the patron saint of the Czech state. Wenceslas came to personify the High Middle Ages concept of the rex justus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.

But how did this legend become a famous Christmas carol?

John Mason Neale
Thomas Helmore
In 1853 the British ambassador to Sweden, G. J. R. Gordon, returned to England with a copy of the 16th-century song book Piae Cantiones, which he presented to Anglican clergyman John Mason Neale (1818–1866), who was known for his interest in early music. Neale in turn passed the book on to Rev. Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), whom he knew to an expert interpreter of the mensural notation in which the tunes were given. Helmore adapted the carol melodies, while Neale translated the words of the songs into English, or in a few cases wrote completely new texts for them. He and Helmore published 12 of these tunes in the same year as Carols for Christmastide. This set included Good King Wenceslasconsisting of Neale's original words set to the tune of the 13th century Finnish carol Tempus adest floridum ("The time is near for flowering"), which had been included in the Piae Cantiones.

As noted by one researcher, Neale's new carol was not well received by literary critics of the day, one calling it "poor and commonplace to the last degree" and others "doggerel." But the public wasn't influenced by the critics, and they made it "the hit of the century." The carol's popularity grew in Great Britain, and it was soon sung in the New World as well. Eventually, it became the signature carol for St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day as it is known in the British Commonwealth and some Scandinavian countries), December 26, when alms boxes often kept in churches were traditionally opened so that the contents could be distributed to poor people. One can see why from Neale's text:

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, gathering winter fuel.

Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know 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 food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold 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 now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your 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,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.


The question remains why John Mason Neale would choose an obscure medieval figure from a far-away country, who was not widely revered in England at the time, upon whom to base a carol about charity at Christmas. Some understanding about this may be gleaned from Neale's own life and character, which--apart from scholarship--were centered largely on alleviating the distress of poverty and illness.

Ordained in the Church of England during the middle of the 19th century, Neale's health was so frail that he could not supervise a parish. Instead, he was assigned to be warden of a poorhouse named Sackville College. In the course of his duties, Neale had many opportunities to see the misery of the poor in rural villages, some of whom died unattended. Neale also denounced churches that allowed the wealthy to box off sections of the church to separate themselves from commoners. In 1854, Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick.

As one observer suggests:
Perhaps Neale found in Wenceslas the symbol of Christian charity and servitude which had become Neale's own most important principle of Christian life. Neale connected Wenceslas to Christmas, a season of special "good will." By setting his touching story of a medieval Saint to a catchy, medieval tune, he created a hybrid carol that has become a classic. Through this song, Neale's own spirit of charity lives on, and has encouraged people, generation after generation, to practice this Christian virtue.
(Margaret Vainio, Good King Wenceslas--An "English" Carol: The Appearance of Piae Cantiones Melodies in 19th Century England (1999), p. 37).


What is especially inspiring about Good King Wenceslas--and makes it so fitting for the Christmas season--is the spirit of love, giving, and self-sacrifice that infuses it. The King is touched by the plight of the peasant he sees braving the elements to provide for his family, and willingly steps out of his comfortable, privileged world and into the raging storm himself, carrying provisions in his own arms to bring help to the poor man. There is also great love and trust between the King and his page, whom he encourages and enables, through a wonderful miracle,to endure the challenge before them. Is this story an allegory of Christ, the Good King who lowers Himself to succor the wretched and helpless, and the faithful but self-doubting servant, his page?


Because Good King Wenceslas is so widely known and loved in its traditional form, rather few recordings of it really stand out. One that surely does is a December 18, 2012 performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with actress Jane Seymour narrating the Wenceslas story to delightful dance, music, and song.

Perhaps the most famous recording of Good King Wenceslas is one made in the 1940s or 50s by Bing Crosby. Here's a video version, with images taken from an engaging old comic book telling of the story.

Perhaps reflecting the tune's origins as a spring dance, here is a sprightly, Renaissance-tinged version of Good King Wenceslas sung by American vocalist/lyricist Candice Night with the folk-rock band Blackmores Night:

* * * * * * *
May we all emulate the Good King's example this Christmas--and all year--by extending ourselves to share our blessings with others less fortunate.

But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee:
for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.  Luke 14:13-14

No comments:

Post a Comment