John Mason Neale: “Good King Wenceslas”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For my mother, Bonnie Burrows

Many is the Christmas my mother and I have sat at her piano and sung “Good King Wenceslas” together. It tells the simple story of a poor man and the “good king” who feeds him. It seems we have always loved this song and the story it tells, love reveling in the simple but compelling story of the interaction between the poor man and the king.

“Good King Wenceslas” is a simple, plaintive song. It is not a “ho ho,” jolly Christmas carol, but instead it is a song that gets more to the true spirit of Christmas: giving, loving, caring. Listen to the opening lyrics:

Good King Wenceslas went 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
Gathering winter fuel.

Written in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale and set to the melody of a thirteenth-century spring carol, the lyrics tell the real-life story of Saint Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, who lived in Czech in the tenth century A.D. His name was actually Vaclav. He was assassinated by his brother, who then succeeded him as Duke. A “cult of Wenceslas” came into existence in Bohemia and England, and by the eleventh century, Bohemia had come to honor him as its patron saint, recognizing his goodness. In fact, numerous hagiographies – or “saints’ lives” – were penned about Vaclav. A twelfth-century preacher said,

[H]is 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.

Nine centuries later, when Neale took up his pen to write the story of Vaclav, many legends had sprung up around Bohemia’s patron saint. Saint Vaclav – or Saint Wenceslas – was known to aid the poor on Christmas and especially on St. Stephen’s Day, celebrated on December 26, the day after Christmas. Neale wove the story of the poor man, the “king,” and the king’s page into the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

Oh, how we love singing this story song together. It’s been a long time since my mother and I have spent a Christmas together, but we always remind each other – by phone – of our love of this Christmas carol.

To learn more about this wonderful song and to read the full lyrics, visit the “Good King Wenceslas” page at “The Hymns and Carols of Christmas” website. You’ll also want to check out the very informative Wikipedia page on the song. You might also want to own this good printed volume.

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Listen and Watch:Listen to the Irish Rovers sing “Good King Wenceslas.” This YouTube video is illustrated with pictures taken from a book by John Mason Neale and Tim Ladwig. The recording comes from the Irish Rovers’ An Irish Christmas CD.


Image credit: A page from an 1871 book of Christmas carols,