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.
This is more a carol than a hymn, and a strange one at that. Anyone who loves and listens to Christmas music is no doubt well-familiar with at least the first strain of this one. But to ask one what it means would no doubt draw a puzzled look. After all, while it does mention snow – making it at least seasonally appropriate, where is the reference to God, to Jesus, to angels or shepherds or Mary? Where is any mention of Christmas at all?
Wenceslaus was a Czech monarch, the Duke of Bohemia, in the 10th century. This carol is a story to commemorate his legacy of generosity, and is set in winter on the Feast of Saint Stephen – December 26 in the Christian liturgical calendar. Hence the connection with Christmas. John Mason Neale published this carol in 1853 to celebrate the life of Wenceslaus, as he saw in the king’s life the same charity as we all see in the life of Christ the King.
The carol continues for four stanzas beyond the first, and tells a story of the kindness and compassion of Wenceslaus toward his subjects, and of the following of his page in his footsteps.
Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou knowst its 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 St Agnes’ Fountain.
Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine when we bear them 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 good, my 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.
The carol ends as a call for all who follow Christ – as did Wenceslaus – to truly celebrate Christmas by serving others. As Jesus said:
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
(Luke 14:13-14 ESV)