Monday, December 8, 2008

Good King Wenceslas

At church last night we sang "Good King Wenceslas" by John M. Neale. You've probably heard it; it's a pretty traditional Christmas song, despite the fact that it doesn't mention Christmas, or little baby Jesus, or shepherds, or stars, or anything like that. Like me, you probably only know the first few lines:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

But the song actually tells a story about the king, or rather, the duke. Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia (which is part of the present-day Czech Republic) from 921 to around 935 A.D., when he was killed by his brother. He is considered a martyr, and is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Legend, which I tend to believe unless I have a reason not to, depicts him as a "good king" who traveled around giving to the poor and needy of his kingdom (or dukedom or fiefdom or whatever). And if that's not enough, he was played in a movie by Jonathan Brandis.

So read the rest of the lyrics. The song has several good lessons, and features one of those characteristically low-key Christian miracles. The language is a little baroque, so I'll summarize each verse.

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.

It's the day after Christmas, and Wenceslas sees a poor man gathering sticks to make a fire.

“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.”

He calls a servant over and finds out where the peasant lives.

“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.

The duke orders food and logs for a fire, and goes with his servant through the winter to eat with the peasant.

“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.”

It's freaking cold, and the servant doesn't think he can go on to feed the poor man, but Wenceslas advises him to walk behind him.

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.

The servant walks "in his master's steps", from which miraculous heat emanates. It's not in the song, but presumably they successfully find the poor man and dine with him. One historian wrote in 1119, "But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched."

I really like the idea of a barefoot king wandering around in the snow, giving away his kingdom to the poor and inviting people to walk in his footsteps. So even though on first glance "Good King Wenceslas" seems only vaguely Christmas-y because it mentions snow, I think it's a great song to sing as we celebrate the birth of another barefoot king.

No comments: