Good King Wenceslas is a Christmas Carol that tells the story of a king's journey through harsh winter weather. His intention is to bring food and firewood to a poor man he notices from the tower of his castle during the Feast of Stephen on December 26, the second day of Christmas.
It is a true story of Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (c. 907-935 AD). This is the region around Prague in the Czech Republic. Stories of his giving alms to the poor have been told since this time. But it would take many more centuries before these were put into a Christmas carol.
On a cold and snowy night, the good King Wenceslas is enjoying the Feast of Saint Stephen. He looks out over his land, illuminated by moonlight, and notices a poor man gathering firewood for his home. He asks a page if he knows who the man is. The page responds that the man lives a long distance from here, at the base of a mountain in the distance.
King Wenceslas immediately wishes to share the warmth of his own home and the food of the holiday with him. He orders the servants of his household to bring him food and firewood, that he may bring them into the poor man's home.
Thus begins the King's journey of goodwill through the wintery night with one of his servants. Off they go together, carrying a heavy load and trudging through heavy snowfall and cold wind.
The page soon tells the King, "Sire, I cannot go any further." The King tells his page to simply follow boldly in his footsteps. Legend says that as the page walks in the King's footsteps, he is pleasantly warmed.
King Wenceslas and his page reach the poor man's home, bringing him plenty of firewood and a wonderful dinner they all share together. The moral of the story being, those who bless the poor shall themselves find blessing as well.
During his time at university in Rostock, Germany in 1582, a Finnish student named Theodoricus Petri compiled a songbook containing 74 Latin church and school songs. His intention was to preserve ancient hymns and songs of his fatherland, many already several centuries old. Jaakko Finne (or Suomalainen), headmaster of the Cathedral school in Turku, Finland, edited and published the first edition of this book of carols in Greifswald, Sweden that same year.
The name of this first publication was Piæ Cantiones. This collection contained many songs mostly from Finland and Sweden, but also several other European countries including France, Germany, England, and Bohemia. It has become one of Finland's greatest musical treasures as about half of the songs are believed to be of Finnish origin.
The tune to one of these songs, Tempus Adest Floridum (The time is near for flowering), is what we hear today when we listen to Good King Wenceslas. It is said that this melody dates back to the 13th century. This tune is also used today in the Gentle Mary Laid Her Child carol.
It wasn't until 1853 that English hymnwriter John Mason Neale used the story of King Wenceslas from the 10th century, combined with the Tempus Adest Floridum melody first published in the 16th century, to create the Good King Wenceslas carol that we enjoy today. He did this along with his music editor, Thomas Helmore. The carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, a collection of 12 Christmas carols adapted from Piæ Cantiones.
Good King Wenceslas
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 thou 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 flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear the 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 step he trod,
where the snow lay dented.
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.
Give, and it will be given to you.
Originally published December 13, 2020
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman
Good King Wenceslas by John Mason Neale
Collected Hymns by John Mason Neale
Piæ Cantiones - Hymns and Carols of Christmas