Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good King Wenceslas

This is one of my favorite Christmas carols...not just because of the tune itself, but that it's based on an actual historical figure.

The Reverend John Mason Neale, who published the English lyrics to "Good King Wenceslas" in Carols for Christmas-tide (1854), was looking for a good role model for children.  The generous Wenceslas fit the description nicely.  Neale's fanciful lyrics, which drew scorn from his critics, were based on the story of the nobleman Wenceslas (c. 907-929), Duke of Bohemia, a kind and good man who was raised by his devoted grandmother.  Wenceslas became king, and during his brief reign he converted his country to Christianity and provided his people with a period of great peace and serenity.  It was his decree that Christmas should be celebrated in every cottage and church throughout the land. 

Wenceslas was known to be a just and merciful king with considerable compassion for the poor and sick.  Unfortunately for his people, Wenceslas was murdered in 929 by a younger brother who conspired against him with other family members and the pagan nobility.

The music for "Good King Wenceslas" comes from an anonymous thirteenth-century Swedish spring carol titled "Tempest Adest Floridum," part of the 1582 carol book publication Piae Cantiones.  "Good King Wenceslas," despite its confounding lyrics, has become a Christmas favorite for children and adults alike. (from Christmas Favorites by Sourcebooks, Inc.)

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 will see him dine
When we bear him 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, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy 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
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Merry Christmas!


  1. Thank you so much for sharing the story and words to the carol with me. Though I was familiar with the carol I did not know it was based off a real person. You are such a fount of knowledge.

  2. It is a wonderful song that would make so much sense to people if they knew all of the lyrics. Singing just the one verse is like only reading one chapter of a book over and over.


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