Choir of York Minster: Good King Wenceslas

wenceslas text This is an unusual carol, actually I’ll go further it’s a very unusual carol because although it’s meant to be sung on December 26th – the first day after Christmas itself it makes no reference to the Nativity or to any of the other events celebrated at Christmastide such as the Massacre of the Innocents. Wenceslas (Vaclav) was a 10th-century Christian Duke of Bohemia whose way of life and deeds led to him being known as "Vaclav the Good".  He was murdered by his brother whose way of life and deeds led to him being known as "Boleslaw the bad".  Wenceslas’s remains were interred in St Vitus’s cathedral in Prague where they remain to this day, and he was recently made patron saint of the Czech Republic. Wenceslas’ Saint’s Day is celebrated on September 28th.

St. Stephen’s day – the feast of St. Stephen, is celebrated on December 26th as well as being the first Christian martyr he’s mentioned in Acts as distributing food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. I presume that J M Neale (1818-66) who wrote this carol  and saw its first publication in 1853 conflated saints Stephen and Wenceslas as part of an attempt to uphold the tradition of charitable giving on December 26th (Boxing day) but for the life of me neither I nor anyone else has ever been able to work out why Neale’s verses depict Wenceslas feeling compelled to take pine logs to a peasant who lived next to a forest, and as a child I was always baffled by the last verse. How exactly was the footprint in the snow was going to encourage men "wealth or rank possessing" to behave charitably? Ultimately I decided that it was a rollicking good tune and I was going to enjoy it as such. This performance by the Choir of York Minster is particularly enjoyable. I’ve put the lyrics below the video so that you can sing along should the Christmas spirit so move you. Enjoy :-).


Video Source: Good King Wenceslas York Minster 1995 – YouTube Uploaded on Apr 17, 2007 by notyobs

Lyrics:  Good King Wenceslas

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

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

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