The Common Good

What Are You Singing: Good King Wenceslas

When I go home for Christmas, I always end up pulling out the old Christmas songbook from inside the piano bench and working my way through while my mom cooks dinner. I don’t really read the music as much as I read the chords and play by ear. Good King Wenceslas is a beautiful song musically, but is one of the most fun songs to play because of the never-ending chord changes. 

Marques / Shutterstock.com
Marques / Shutterstock.com

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I never really considered what the song was about, being raised in a school system that taught of the tyranny of monarchies and the Revolutionary War. Medieval leaders ruled in an age of knights, castles, and oppressed peasants. But then there was Wenceslas (who I now know was the Duke of Bohemia):

Good King Wenceslas look’d out, On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round-a-bout, 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 shall 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.

I can vividly picture the king standing on his balcony, probably full from feasting on pheasants (not to be confused with peasants) and wine. Content with his luxuries, he sees a peasant — a poor man — looking only to chop wood for a fire. Why didn’t he plan better? Surely other peasants knew that a storm was brewing, as Wenceslas only saw one man. Maybe he was lazy. Or maybe he had unexpected guests. Maybe he toiled long in his mountainous fields and simply did not have the energy to find wood to build a fire. Nevertheless, Good King Wenceslas had pity on the man, and led his page out into the snow to bring this man some meat, drink, and wood.

"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, good my 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.

And that’s how the story ends. The moral of this story is not that there was hungry man who needed wood for a fire. What’s more important is the compassion and leadership of Wenceslas — regardless of how his gift was received. 

There is a season for researching, debating, and discussing ways to end poverty and hunger once and for all. But this is not that season. Christmastime, as understood by Wenceslas, is when you’re supposed to think of something thoughtful to do, and just do it. 

James Colten is Assistant to the CEO at Sojourners.

Photo: Marques / Shutterstock.com

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