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Good King Wenceslas (re-post from 1-3-07)

The Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" tells the story of a king who goes out with his page to give alms to a poor man on the day after Christmas. Wenceslas is a real person, born in 907. His father was converted to Christ through the work of two Greek brothers Cyril, known as Constantine; and Methodius in the 860's. These brothers became known as "the apostles to the Slavs". Wenceslas' father died when he was only thirteen and his grandmother, Ludmila, raised him as a Christian. His mother, Drahomira, remained pagan as did his younger brother and arranged Ludmila's murder in 921 and regained control over raising Wenceslas. History is sketchy on what happened during the next 5 years, but when he was 18 years old, he assumed the throne and had his mother exiled. He then promoted Christianity throughout Bohemia. The nobles did not like the Roman influence that they saw coming in through Christianity and plotted to kill Wenceslas with his pagan younger brother, Boleslaus, who murdered him in a brutal manner outside of a church building.

The author of Good King Wenceslas is John Neale (1818-66). He was an English clergyman, hymnologist, scholar, linguist, theologian, and prolific author of over 30 volumes. He won prizes for his poetry. He also wrote the popular carols, "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "Good Christian Men Rejoice".

He spent his last 20 years of his life as the Warden of Saksville College in Sussex, which was a charitable institution for the aged, at a salary of 27 pounds a year. He had a heart of compassion for the poor, ill, aged, and children. Historians write that his bishop barred him from official duties out of jealousy.

Neale's succinct biography with more references is here.

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 him 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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