Who was Good King Wenceslas? Unlike Fire, a Good Servant and a Good Master
It’s easy to ask, “Who was Good King Wenceslas?” It’s hard to answer without gaining inspiration.
The historical record around Wenceslas is as rousing as the song can be in the Christmas season.
Wenceslas is the Latinized name for Václav the Good, Duke of medieval Bohemia in AD 921-935, now the modern Czech Republic. The moniker “good” has some historical basis in Cosmas of Prague, writing in 1119:
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.
Of course, there was the reform of the liturgy, the navigation of politics for Bohemia, an assassination by his own brother, and the writing of hagiographies (spiritual biographies) after his death which contributed to sympathy for his work. Within a generation, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto conferred a royal title on him posthumously. He became a symbol of national hope to the Czech people in the late 1930’s, as songs about him were played alongside the national anthem during Nazi occupation. Prague’s most glorious town square bears his name and his statue.
Then there is this moving song that we associate clearly with the Christmas season each year. To understand this song at Christmas, three facts about European history assist us. First, Bohemia has respectable snow in the winter and it gets bitter cold. Second, alms are a mainstay of medieval Catholic culture. Giving to the poor is a legitimate expression of the Christian life, enhanced during the culture of Christmas with its theme of giving. If a king, duke, or lord were good, then a caring eye to servants or civilians would be a worthy expression. Third, the Feast of St. Stephen is December 26 in the West and December 27 in the East, the day in which the church remembers the first church martyr (Acts 7). This puts the feast squarely in our Christmas season.
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.
And so the duke ordered his servant to prepare food and fire, and to invite the peasant to be their guest. They went forth to find him, but the snowstorm prevented them. The servant became cold and fearful, when Wenceslas invited him to follow in his own footsteps through the deep snow. In an effort to help a stranger in distress, the good leader had to help his own page simply to make the return trip. Sacrifice confronted need in manifold ways, guiding us not to forget the giving element of the season.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
The closing stanza is the timeless message with a twist. Helping others sometimes surprises us with its own reward.
Meanwhile, your calendar may read “Boxing Day” on this same date. In Britain, this is the day of giving a present, a Christmas box, to servants or to family members. This event and St. Stephen’s Feast share the same date. Perhaps this inspired London resident John Mason Neale to attribute the giving of resources by King Wenceslas in the song, first published in 1853. The poor man gathering wood was, in a sense, his national servant. The king in turn became a servant to this peasant and to his own servant.
The Christmas season embodies giving. From the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:11), to the gifts of the magi to the Jesus (Matt. 2:11), to the ultimate gift of the Incarnation by Jesus (Gal. 4:4-5). Who is King Wenceslas? A servant master who reminds us to be the same.