December 26 is the Feast of Stephen, the “second day of Christmas”. And this is the setting for one least-understood Christmas carols: Good King Wenceslas.
The carol is a mixture of history and myth, and, like such mixtures often do, gives us wisdom about our lives and choices.
The historical Wenceslas wasn’t a king, but rather a ruling Duke. In his Czech homeland, he wasn’t even associated with Christmas.
However, he remains an important national figure in today’s Czech Republic — where he is known to Czech speakers as Václav rather than Wenceslas, the Latinized version of his name.
The Catholic Church has named him the country’s patron saint, and the Holy Roman Empire later gave him the title, King.
The real Wenceslas — known as Václav the Good — lived from about A.D. 907 to 929, and his life was cut short by the intrigues of his own family.
His father, Vratislaus I, was the Duke of Bohemia and a Christian. His mother, Drahomíra, though baptized before the marriage, was aligned with Bohemia’s pagans. As a child, Václav was raised largely by his Christian paternal grandmother, Ludmila — who was later canonized as a saint in her own right.
When Václav was about 13, his father died in battle and Ludmila became regent. But the regency did not last long. His mother had Ludmila killed — resenting her mother-in-law’s influence on the government and her soon-to-be duke son. Newly empowered, Drahomíra also sought to suppress Bohemia’s Christians.
When Václav became Duke of Bohemia himself at age 18, he instead sought to spread Christianity. He commissioned the building of several churches including part of what is now St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. He also developed a reputation as a wise and compassionate ruler, known for his deeds of mercy.
Legend has it that he paid particular attention to caring for the poor, widows, orphans and even prisoners. He opposed the slave market and would buy slaves in order to set them free. He also is known for successfully negotiating peace with the Bavarians, who had been traditional enemies of Bohemians.
But his jealous younger brother, Boleslav, wanted to become duke himself and had the backing of their mother. Boleslav also was willing to exploit his brother’s faith to seize power. He invited Václav to a church dedication on Sept. 27, 929. The next day, while Václav was on his way to prayer, Boleslav and his henchman attacked — killing the young duke on Sept. 28.
After his tragic death, various biographies began to be written about the young ruler.
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyric, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published the same year. Neale based the story of the carol on an 1849 book, Deeds of Faith: Stories for Children from Church History, which recounted legends from Christian tradition in Romantic prose. One of the chapters told the legend of St Wenceslas and his footsteps melting the snow for his page:
"My liege," he said, "I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return."
"Seems it so much?" asked the King. "Was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this?"
Otto answered not.
"Follow me on still," said S. Wenceslaus. "Only tread in my footsteps, and you will proceed more easily."
The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the King: he set his own feet in the print of his lord's feet.
Neale’s Carol contains five verses:
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,
tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gath'ring winter fuel.
"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."
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall 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, my good 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.
I am partial to the Bing Crosby version of the song found here.
As I said, the carol freely mixes history and myth. Wenceslas did exist, and it is not without reason that he was known for his concern for the poor. He continues to be one of the most revered figures in Czech history, and his imposing statue dominates the central square in Prague.
Yet almost certainly the story of the ruler and his page travelling through the storm is made-up. The first occurrence of the story I have seen is written many centuries after his death.
But of course, stories don’t have to be historical to be instructive, as anyone moved by a movie or book of fiction can attest. It seems right that the story is set on December 26, for on the day following Christmas we are reminded to follow the One we celebrate on Christmas: to walk in His steps, and find the journey less arduous. And to go to those in need, as He did in coming for us.