One of the best loved Christmas Carols is the 158-year-old carol: Good King Wenceslas. In 1853, John Mason Neale chose Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity. It quickly became a Christmas favorite, even though its words clearly indicate that Wenceslas ‘looked out’ on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. So Good King Wenceslas is actually a Boxing Day carol! For a tune, Neale picked up a spring carol, originally sung with the Latin text ‘Tempus adest floridum’ or ‘Spring has unwrapped her flowers’. This original spring tune was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church and school songs.
Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia who was murdered in 929 AD by his wicked younger brother, Boleslav. As the song indicates, he was a good, honest, and strongly principled man. The song expresses his high moral character in describing King Wenceslas braving a fierce storm in order to help feed a poor neighbour. Wenceslas believed that his Christian faith needed to be put into action in practical ways. Wenceslas was brought up with a strong Christian faith by his grandmother St. Ludmila. Wenceslas’ own mother Drahomira, however, joined forces with an anti-Christian group that murdered Wenceslas’ grandmother, and seized power in Bohemia. Two years later in 922 AD, the evil Drahomira was deposed, and Good King Wenceslas became the ruler. He became Bohemia’s most famous martyr and patron saint. His picture appeared on Bohemian coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas became the symbol of Czech independence.
Even as a young child, I remember feeling moved as I sung this unusual carol. Why does Good King Wenceslas have such a deep and lasting impact on its hearers? Perhaps it is because there are so many levels of meaning to this carol. A child may hear one thing, an adult may hear another. I find that I can sing it again and again, and new meaning continues to pour forth from the carol. Recently the phrase ‘Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer’ really spoke to me. It reminded me that sometimes there are times in our lives when life and its stresses seem to overwhelm us, and we feel that ‘we can go no longer.’ The response of Good King Wenceslas was most interesting. He said: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly: Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.’ Wenceslas reminds us that when we are all alone, life can feel very bleak. It is at such times that solidarity with another human being can help ‘our blood freeze less coldly’. Wenceslas affirms that we are not alone, and subtly points to the basic Christmas message that Jesus our Master will never leave us in the cold.
In His Master’s Steps
In the last verse are the memorable words: ‘In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted.’ The author John Neale, an Anglican priest, shows us here that the essence of true living is learning to walk in our Master’s steps. All of us need a Higher Power to help guide us along our journey. Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me (and tread in my steps), he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Our challenge each Christmas is to look beyond the toys and tinsel, to see ‘the Master’s steps.’
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-The sequel book Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit is available online with Amazon.com in both paperback and ebook form. In Canada, Amazon.ca has the book available in paperback and ebook.
It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook ), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook).
Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form. Nook gives a sample of the book to read online.
Indigo also offers the paperback and the Kobo ebook version. You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook.
To receive a signed copy within North America, just send a $20 cheque (USD/CAN) to ED HIRD, 102-15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, Canada V4A 0A5.
– In order to obtain a signed copy of the prequel book Battle for the Soul of Canada, please send a $18.50 cheque to ‘Ed Hird’, #102-15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, Canada V4A 0A5. For mailing the book to the USA, please send $20.00 USD. This can also be done by PAYPAL using the e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Be sure to list your mailing address. The Battle for the Soul of Canada e-book can be obtained for $9.99 CDN/USD.