Five Things To Love About "Good King Wenceslas"


By THE ENTHUSIAST

Boxing Day Is For The Birds

The day after Christmas is known by many names. In England it’s Boxing Day, in Ireland it’s Wren Day (regularly voted Worst Holiday Of All Time by wrens throughout the Emerald Isle; The Enthusiast encourages the stout of heart to look it up), and in the United States it is The Day When You Run To The Mall To Exchange The Stuff People Got You For Stuff You Actually Want Day. Few carols are set on the day after Christmas, but one great one is: "Good King Wenceslas."

The Protomartyr

The carol sets the date right off the bat:

Good King Wenceslas looked out On the Feast of Stephen

"The Feast of Stephen"! That’s yet another name for the day after Christmas: Saint Stephen’s Day. The story of Stephen’s death by stoning is related in the Acts of the Apostles – he's the first of all the Christian martyrs.

Winter Is Bustin’ Out All Over

Hymnist John Mason Neale set an excerpt from a German poem about King Wenceslas to a carol dating all the way back to the 14th Century – far and away the oldest carol The Enthusiast has described this December. Intriguingly, however, the melody Neale chose wasn’t a Christmas carol, but a 13th-century Spring carol, "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("Spring Has Unwrapped Her Flowers").

Deeds, Not Words

In Hastening Towards Prague: Power And Society In The Medieval Czech Lands, Lisa Wolverton quotes a 12th-century cleric extolling the virtues of the good king:

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.

In the 15th century Pope Pius II followed in the very steps trod by Wenceslas, walking ten miles barefoot through the snow as an act of thankful piety.

Take Heed

The closing lyric is one of the most startling in all the Christmas canon, suddenly breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the listener. Though it speaks to Christian men, its message rings true for all creeds and genders:

Therefore, Christian men, take heed, Wealth or rank possessing – Ye who now will bless the poor Shall yourselves find blessing.


Now get thee to the mall ere the returns department closes.

Number twenty-six in a series.

St. Stephen's Day 2020


The Enthusiast (offbroadway@outlook.com) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.