Author: Andrew Wileman
The story doesn’t end well for the ‘Good King’, but it is an inspiring story of kindness and service and tells a much-needed message, not just at Christmas, but for Christians all year long.
The carol we know today was written in 1853 by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune and was written in the town of East Grinstead, in West Sussex, at Sackville College where he was staying at the time.
It turns out that Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia (now the western portion of the Czech Republic). His grandfather and father had turned from paganism to Christianity. His mother, however, was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief. When Wenceslas was 13, his father died, and his mother, having embraced paganism once more, tried to turn him away from his faith in Christ.
But when Wenceslas was 18, he gained the throne, had his mother exiled, and sought to reign over his people with mercy and justice as a truly Christian monarch. He is best known for his acts of kindness.
The carol is based on a story set during a feast day shortly after Christmas. King Wenceslas is not feasting; instead, he looks out the window onto the wintry landscape and discovers a poor man, gathering whatever meagre firewood he can find in the deep snow. Wenceslas leaves his comfortable home and goes with the page into the cold night to deliver the gifts personally. The story goes that at one point, the snow becomes so deep and the wind so fierce that the page wonders if he can carry on. But Wenceslas invites him to walk in his footsteps, and as he does, the page finds strength to endure. Together they brave the storm and fill the poor man’s humble home with generous gifts.
King Wenceslas was beloved by his people. However, at the age of 28, Wenceslas was assassinated on his way to church by his jealous brother, but his influence lived on. He was considered a martyr, and today is the patron saint of the Czech state.
I think the message of this well-known Carol is interesting for us today. For a start this Carol is a rarity, as I can’t think of another carol about an actual person (outside of those in the Christmas narrative) and I think it is also the only carol with an overt social justice message. The end of verse 5 is a timely message.
“Therefore, Christian men be sure,
wealth or rank possessing.
ye who now will bless the poor;
shall yourselves find blessing.”
We all joyfully accept the invitation to generous giving that comes with the Christmas season. But sometimes meaningful giving, the kind that really makes a difference, requires sacrifice, and that can be difficult. When this happens, we can find strength as we walk in the steps of the Master Giver.
“Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27).
In my preparation for today the very Good King Wenceslas reminded me of the kindness and generosity of another king, one who also chose to be a servant, who lived among the poor and the weary so that he could give them relief.
This is the king whose birth and life of service we celebrate at Christmas.
Who in modern times would be the subject of a carol or song like this?
What intentional acts of kindness can you show this Christmas?
What do you think are the blessings of service to the poor and marginalised?
As well as being a Faith in Later Life Trustee, Andrew Wileman is the Assistant Director for Older People’s Services at The Salvation Army. This blog is part of Three Advent Stories shared with Faith in later Life from Andrew’s book ‘Songs of the Faith‘.
Read the other stories here: