Good King Wenceslas, or The First Bohemian Rhapsody, or This Shouldn’t Even Be a Christmas Carol

[About the Author: Stewart McMillan is a chiropractor in Brandon, MB. He is passionate about many things including his wife and three daughters, helping people with their health and pain, helping people worship God through music, acoustic guitars, hymns, NFL football, curling, After Eights, opera, and my wife’s cheesecakes which is being displayed in the growth of my girth.]

So, Songs of the Season…let’s tackle Good King Wenceslas because it’s kind of an anomaly/underdog (everyone loves an underdog) and shouldn’t really be a Christmas song at all, and yet it’s the exact message that needs to be hammered home in this season of excess and consumerism.

Tempus_adest_floridumI’m sure you’re thinking, “Enough with the hippie, social justice Christians making me feel guilty for enjoying my new toy at Christmas time.”

That’s not what this is about. This is about generosity, not the evils of consumerism.

Duke Wenceslas was the ruler of Bohemia (a part of the modern day Czech Republic) about 1000 years ago. There is so much legend surrounding him that we are not sure what is true and what is false, but generally, it’s agreed that he was a champion of the poor and extremely generous. The story I like the best is that his Dad died while he was young and his mother was a pagan so banished Christian teaching from their house. His grandmother snuck in priests to teach Wenceslas the Bible and when he was 18, he took over the throne and restored Christian principles to Bohemia…and then went on to inspire the Bohemian Rhapsody!!

The reason this song should not have survived as a Christmas carol is that the words do not mention anything about the nativity, and it’s confusing because the voice changes several times during the song, too. And if you’re trying to sight read a bass line while you sing it, you are certain to get lost on who is speaking when and what the song really means.

Even the tune itself was traditionally associated with springtime. It was supposed to be sung at that time of year, not the dead of winter. Regardless, it is with us so let’s dive in a bit.

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

So we have our good king on the day of the feast of Stephen (Boxing Day, but that is a whole other historical post about generosity during this time of year). He sees a peasant just trying to get enough to survive.

“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.”

A whole verse that could have just been, “Do you know him, and where he lives?” “Yes, he lives over there.”

“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.

Now we have the king killing the fattened calf for this peasant that he doesn’t even know. He brings out the best wine and fuel for a fire in spite of blizzard conditions and -40 degree weather. The best detail not to miss is that he didn’t just give to the poor here or some organization that looks after the poor. He took the necessities to the poor man and dined with him.

“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.”

Now we even have the servant being a wimp in this weather, but the good king doesn’t just say, “Cowboy up, son!” He says, “Here, walk in my footsteps and I’ll shield you from the wind.”

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.

So, no matter who you are or what your title is, your Christian duty is to bless the poor. Even if you don’t feel blessed, there is always someone less blessed that you can bless.

The cynic in me says this is just a marketing ploy, but I still like it and I think Wenceslas would approve.


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