It is the time of year again that wherever we go we will soon be hearing the sounds of the season. Christmas carols and holiday songs will be heard in stores, malls, and on many radio stations. As do many of you, I have my own list of favorites like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” , the very modern Carol of the Bells by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and anything from the soothing sounds of Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song album. Many of these Christmas songs are enjoyed by children and adults both. Some are fun and bouncy, others are slow and somber, but they’re all songs that we love to hear and sing.
One of the most unlikely carols that you may hear at Christmas time is the mysterious song “Good King Wenceslaus”. This somewhat obscure song is unusual as a holiday tune, because it makes no reference to Christ, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, or any details of the nativity. Apart from mentioning the Feast of Stephen (an Orthodox holiday celebrated on December 26), the song has no connection to the events or time of Christmas whatsoever. Yet men and women have been singing (or, attempting to sing) it at Christmas time for well over 150 years. (I say “attempting to sing” because the last time I heard a group of people belt it out, so few of them actually knew the words that it went something like this, “Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen, blah, blah, something, blah, blah, blah, deep and blah, blah even.” Which is almost as good as the often sung classic, “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…er, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree!”)
While this particular carol may never become as popular as other well-known holiday songs, the story that lies behind it is something every Christian should know. I recently read an article from the Voice of the Martyrs’ magazine that shed some light on why the real man known as King Wenceslaus was not only “good” but was godly.
Here’s the carol and the story behind the carol.
Good King WenceslausGood 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.
“King Wenceslaus”, as the song has nicknamed him, was actually a duke named Vaclav who was the ruler of Bohemia (the Czech Republic) during the 10th century. He was a committed Christian whose reign was “riddled with political intrigue, murder, and pagan influences”. Despite the turmoil and chaos that surrounded his time in power, his testimony and faithfulness to Christ remained unshaken.
His reign was especially known for its generosity towards orphans, widows, and the poor. As the carol describes, Vaclav was known for giving food (“flesh and wine”) and wood (“winter fuel”) to the poor as well as visiting those in prison and orphanages. He was particularly gracious to German missionaries that came into his country and even helped build churches for those that came to Christ under their ministry.
Vaclav’s Christian heritage that made him popular with the masses, made him unpopular, however, with a few. His grandparents were Christian at a time when very few Slavics were. In fact, his grandfather, built the first church in the Czech Republic. His own father, Duke Vratislav I, was also “a passionate Christian [who] taught his son Christian values.” From his teen years, he ruled Bohemia with Christian justice, which not everyone liked. His own brother, Boleslav, was a pagan who was hostile towards Christianity. So, he convinced a group of anti-Christian nobles to assassinate Vaclav. While on his way to a dinner party, Vaclav was stabbed on the steps of the church. While bleeding to death his final words were, “Brother, may God forgive you!” Interestingly, the Bohemian people quickly honored Vaclav as a man who died, not because he was a king, but because He was a Christian. He died a martyr in 929A.D.
It was John Neale, a British minister, who, in 1853, penned the words to the carol itself after hearing the story of the life, testimony, and martyrdom of Duke Vaclav. Neale wrote the song to teach children the example of this man whose generosity, kindness, and witness was Christ-like and worth imitating.
As the carol itself closes, “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing” – a great reminder for all of us, this Christmas season.