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Good King Who?

John Moe

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Good King Wenceslas

I was out shopping the other day, and they were playing all the Christmas carols. The Jesus ones, the Santa ones. And then I heard:

"Good King Wenceslas." A song that has nothing to do with any holiday. But in heavy rotation everywhere. I don't know why. Have you ever listened to it all the way through? Let's break it down.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen.

And right away - huh? Who's Wenceslas? What's he a king of? Who's Stephen? Why does he have a feast?

We then learn that the snow was deep, crisp, even, and roundabout. Soon a poor man shows up collecting firewood. The king asks his page who the guy is, the page says, "Oh, that guy lives out by St. Agnes Fountain." So the king says, "Hey, let's get some firewood and wine and meat and bring it out to him. We'll walk. It'll be awesome."

But on the way to deliver the wood and snacks, the page gets cold. You remember the snow, right? So Wenceslas tells him walk in my footsteps. "They give off heat, you'll be fine." And it works! The song ends by saying you should help out those less fortunate.

A good message, sure, and there's snow. But again, no Jesus, no Santa, no Hannukah, no nothing.

I found out the Feast of Stephen takes place the day after Christmas, so it's actually a Boxing Day carol. Wenceslas was a Bohemian duke murdered in the year 935 by his younger brother Boleslaus. Afterward, a sort of cult of Wenceslas emerged based on the legend of those warm footprints. In 1853, a British liturgist wrote the song to teach kids about virtue.

But there are zillions of songs about virtue. Why did this one become a hit? Why do we hear about a murdered 10th century Bohemian log and meat-bearing duke while shopping for iPods in 2008?

Maybe it's the tune. Catchy, easy to sing.

Just a few notes do you need; it's in everyone's range.
No one will sound too dumb reaching for a high note.
Then you go up just a bit, then you go back down again.
Then you build up for the long notes, but by now you're warmed up.

Then you go back to this part because there is no chorus.

I talked to clergy, classical music experts--no one knows why Wenceslas is a chart topper.

It's at this point that I would tell you what I think the answer is. But I'm not going to do that. I don't want there to be an answer.

Christmas is a narrow ritual. Every year, we shop, we stress about money, we follow the same traditions, and the songs are mostly about Jesus or Santa. Except Wenceslas. I love how obtuse that is.

If there's a logical explanation, don't send it to me. I want it to just be this weird Bohemian murdery thing. Takes the pressure off.

I'll keep singing it. Then for a change of pace, I might sing "Jingle Bells." Which has nothing to do with Christmas, was originally written for Thanksgiving, and is all about going too fast in horse-drawn sleighs and sometimes getting in horrible accidents.

  • Music Bridge:
    Good King Wenceslas
    Artist: Crash Test Dummies
    CD: Jingle All the Way (Hunter)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Mark Robertson

    From Kirtland, OH, 12/12/2008

    My 4th Graders are learning the tune on recorder for their Holiday Concert next week. I used your article in class to expand the lesson I teach with this song.

    Thanks a Bunch!

    By Liz Wing

    From Durham, NC, 12/06/2008

    I was so glad to have caught this segment today! I've always loved the tune and the message of this carol. The excellent vocabulary (hither, page; a good league hence; the rude wind's wild lament; where the snow lay dinted; heat was in the very sod ...). My favorite rendition is on the Roches Christmas album.

    By David Kearsley

    From Saint Paul, MN, 12/06/2008

    Ps: I also find it a little disturbing that there are men and women "of the cloth" (read: "clergy") out there who couldn't tell you what little I just told you about St. Stephen.

    Just to be clear; I'm not a member of the clergy. I'm not a Christian "fundamentalist". Nor am I an extremist by any stretch of the imagination. I don't even attend services on anything approaching a regular basis. I'm just someone who has read the King James Bible in its entirety (essentially as a narrative) more than once, with certain large sections read repeatedly over time. I believe that the Bible specifically and religious texts generally are, by definition, very complex syntheses of the literal and the symbolic.

    Oh yeah, I am an MPR member.

    By David Kearsley

    From Saint Paul, MN, 12/06/2008

    Sorry, I'm sending a logical expalanation anyway.

    I'm a regular listener to the Weekend America, so I found the lack of intellectual rigor exhibited in this piece more than a little disturbing.

    The carol "Good King Wenceslas" is not unrelated to Christ. Stephen (as in Feast of Stephen) was the first scripturally acknowledged Christian martyr, persecuted by the Pharisees and Sanhedrin during the period immediately following Christ's death and resurrection. The Stoning of Stephen was overseen by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul the Apostle). That's probably why the Feast of Stephen immediately follows Christmas, as an observance and reminder of the early persecution of Christ's followers.

    That's also probably why the good king felt some additional inspiration to render special aid to someone in need.

    For the scriptural account of Stephen's martyrdom, see The Acts Chapters 6-8.

    By Kim Habig

    From Duluth, MN, 12/06/2008

    "Good King Wenceslas" is my favorite carol of the season, too. Thanks for the explanation of its origin!

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