This article appeared at Servants of Grace on December 22, 2010.
What is a Wenceslas, and why do we sing about it at Christmas time? What is it about this jaunty little tune by John Mason Neale that has earned it a place in the Christmas carol repertoire as well as in the hearts of many for the past 160 years — even though not a word about Christmas is mentioned anywhere in the lyrics?
Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, Deep and crisp and even. Brightly shown the moon that night, Though the frost was cruel, When a poor man came in sight, Gathering winter fuel.
Let’s start with when the event of this ballad-narrative took place to answer that dilemma about Christmas not even being referenced in the lyrics. “The feast of Stephen” refers to St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas in the liturgical calendar, also known as Boxing Day in Great Britain — traditionally a day on which good deeds are done and gifts are given by the noble classes to tradespeople and servants in the name of the Christ child. Furthermore, the story about Good King Wenceslas is over 1,000 years old and yet still contains much to intrigue the mind and the heart.