Good King Wenceslaus – The Christmas Carol and the Saint
The feast of St. Wenceslaus – also sometimes spelled St. Wenceslas – is September 28th, yet he is most often remembered, and even sung about, at Christmastime. Is this merely a fun and festive Christmas carol or is there something more to the story of Saint Wenceslaus?
St. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia
St. Wenceslaus I was not actually a king, but a duke. However, historically a duke is the highest rank of nobility below the King and Queen (though if an archduke or grand duke exists in the system, he is higher than a standard duke). A duke reigns over a duchy or dukedom and so this role and level of nobility contributed to Duke Wenceslas later being called a king in the popular song.
Wenceslaus was born in 907 in Bohemia, which is now part of the modern day Czech Republic. He was the son of Duke Wratislaw, a Christian, and a pagan mother said to be named either Dragomir or Drahomíra. Wenceslaus was raised as a Christian primarily by his grandmother, as his father had died when he was 13 years old.
Wenceslaus took the throne at the age of 18. He exiled his mother, who tried, in the years following Duke Wratislaw’s death, to convert Wenceslas to the old pagan religion and to suppress Christianity in the region in the years following Duke Wratislaw’s death, exiled. Wenceslaus placed the duchy under the protection of Germany and brought in German priests. He also promoted the use of the Latin rite for the liturgy; the Slavic rite had previously been popular in the area. Wenceslaus had taken a vow of virginity and was known for his virtue. He founded the St Vitus Cathedral in the area.
For both religious and political reasons, Wenceslaus’s younger brother Boleslaus murdered the virtuous duke at the urging of their mother, hacking his body to pieces. Most historians favor 935 as the date for this murder, though some list that it took place earlier, in 929. A few years after the murder, Boleslaus repented for the deed and had his brother’s relics transferred to St Vitus Cathedral. Remorseful for his actions, Boleslaus, also sometimes spelled as Boleslav or Boleslaw, promised to raise his son as a Christian and have him trained for the clergy. Because Wenceslaus was not simply killed for his throne, but also because of his Faith and promoting of Christianity, he is recognized as a martyr. Tradition also states that several miracles took place in connection with him and at his tomb after his death.
Good King Wenceslas, the Legend and the Carol
Wenceslas (in modern times, the carol often spells the name without the ‘u’) is also the subject of a poem set to music that has become known as a Christmas carol. The lyrics tell the story of a good king who went out on the feast of St. Stephen, December 26th, to give alms to the poor. The king’s page is about to give up due to the extreme cold, but is able to continue following King Wenceslas because of the heat radiating from the king’s footprints in the snow.
The tale is likely a legend but is based on the real life of Wenceslas. Wenceslas was a beloved duke and giving alms to the poor, orphans and widows fits into his pious nature. He was venerated enthusiastically right after his death for his piety and kindness. However, the biography that told the story of miraculous heat radiating from his footprints was not penned until some decades after his death.
The poem “Good King Wenceslas” was written sometime before 1849, though the exact year is not known, and published as a carol to be sung to music in 1853. The tune is that of an older song, “Tempus Adest Floridum”, dating to the late 1500s. As with “What Child is This?” which is set to the older tune “Greensleeves,” the lyrics of “Tempus Adest Floridum” have nothing to do with the carol “Good king Wenceslas.” The story of St. Wenceslas is not a Christmas story, but as the Feast of St. Stephen is December 26th, Christmastime is the season when the good deeds of St. Wenceslaus are remembered.