One of the blessings or trials that many of us have missed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, is that we have not received our annual dose of Christmas carols, inflicted on us by the grocery and department stores. One of the more popular of these ditties is “Good King Wenceslas,” perhaps because it has almost no Christianity in it, offends no one, and actually celebrates the day after Christmas rather than the actual feast of the Nativity. The familiar words of the opening verse go:
Good King Wenceslas looked outOn the Feast of StephenWhen the snow lay round aboutDeep and crisp and evenBrightly shone the moon that nightThough the frost was cruelWhen a poor man came in sightGathering winter fuel
The tale goes on to say how the jovial monarch grabbed a page and strode out into the snow to find the poor rascal and bring him home for food and burly good cheer. The page is about to wimp out, when the king tells him to follow and use his own footprints to make it easier to get through the snow. When he follows this command, the page finds the ground to be warm in the midst of the blizzard and learns the lesson that kindness to others is in itself a blessing. The song ends with a vague reference to religion.
Therefore, Christian men, be sureWealth or rank possessingYe, who now will bless the poorShall yourselves find blessing.
The song is interesting in several ways.
Our version of it was penned by the 19th century Anglican priest and musician John Mason Neale, who lived from 1818 to 1866. But the legend Neale wove was of far older genesis and Neale got his theme from a 15th century Czech poem. The story of the just and merciful king, filled with generosity who commanded a soul to follow him to a meal was simply too Christian an image for the medieval world to neglect. The fact that the actual St. Wenceslas had died as a martyr made the tale all the more colorful, and there were an abundance of legends about him.
The actual Wenceslaus was not a king but a duke, although he was named as a king after his violent death. Wenceslaus I was the Duke of Bohemia, which is now the modern Czech Republic, and he died in AD 935. He and his younger brother Boleslaus the Cruel, were children of Duke Vratislaus of Bohemia, in the days when Christianity was only beginning to take root in eastern Europe. Wenceslaus’ father died when he was only 13 and the lads were raised by his grandmother, Ludmila who served as regent until he was able to seize power.
Wenceslaus spent his life as a warrior against the various enemies of Bohemia with only marginal success.
Annoyed nobles persuaded his younger brother to murder Wenceslaus, when he did after inviting the Duke to his castle for some holy days. On the way to Mass one morning, some nobles stabbed Wenceslaus and Boleslaus ran him through with a battle lance. Boleslaus became Duke and was significantly more effective in keeping the enemies of Bohemia at bay.
Although Wenceslaus was murdered on Sept. 28, 935, the legends gave his act of compassion to the poor man in the snow that of Dec. 26, which is the feast of St. Stephen. Stephen was the first martyr for Christianity, whose killing is described in book seven of the Book of Acts in the New Testament. In Greek, the name Stephen means “crown” or “reward” which recalled the crowns given to athletic victors in Greece and military heroes in Rome. The iconic image of a crowned head being crowned by martyrdom made Wenceslaus an immense hero and the legends about him were numerous.
An immensely popular legend describes how the saint rests under Mount Blanik, where he will return with his army one day to liberate the Czech peoples in the hour of their greatest need. On that day he will ride across the famous Charles Bridge in Prague. His horse shall stumble, revealing the legendary Sword of Bruncvik, an earlier warrior hero, which will make Wenceslaus and his people invincible.
A Czech hymn celebrating Saint Wenceslaus, known as “Svatý Václave” or the “Saint Wenceslas Chorale” is the oldest poem written in the Czech language. During World War II, when the Nazis occupied what was then Czechoslovakia, it was an immensely popular hymn to be sung in church. An English version of it is below. To hear it sung in Czech, one can go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6h4hEI1k6s, where it was sung at the funeral of Vaclav Havel, the nationalist leader who was last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic.
Duke of the Czech lands
ask for God
of the Holy Spirit
The heavenly kingdom is beautiful
Blessed is he who goes there
of the Holy Spirit
I ask for your help
have mercy on us
drive away all evil
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Fatherelder.