“Good King Wenceslas” is a favorite Christmas carol often sung during the Christmas season loosely based on a real person named Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. The carol tells of him going on a journey, braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (celebrated on December 26 as the second day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.
Wenceslas was born in Czechoslovakia in the early 900s. He was given a good education supervised by his grandmother, a devout women. When his father died his grandmother became regent until Wenceslas was of age to rule. His mother, being jealous, had his grandmother killed and assumed the regency. When Wenceslas was 18 he, seeing his mother mishandle affairs of state including persecuting Christians, stepped in and seized control of the government becoming the ruler of Bohemia (titled a Duke rather than a King). During his short reign, he sought good relations with surrounding nations, took steps to reform the judicial system and encouraged the building of churches. Most of all, he showed concern for the poor, including cutting firewood for orphans and widows and often carrying the provisions through the snow. Wenceslas’s brief reign ended when his brother Boleslav, pagan and rebellious, murdered him as he left for church.
In 1853, English hymn writer John Mason Neale wrote the “Wenceslas” lyric in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in “Carols for Christmas-Tide” the same year. Neale’s lyric was set to the melody of the 13th-century spring carol “Eastertime Has Come” first published in the 1582.
We have no direct evidence that Wenceslas was a Christian and, although a real person in history, most of what we know about him comes from legend. However, he was considered a martyr and a patron saint of Czechoslovakia immediately after his death when a cult of Wenceslas rose up in Bohemia and England. When we hear this carol played today we can reflect on the example of a good man, who cared for the poor, that was the inspiration.