“Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even...”
According to legend, Wenceslaus was holding this church door handle when he was struck down. Photo by Sue Burke.
Christmas was an important holiday in the Middle Ages, and not just Christmas Day but all the time around it, starting with Advent in November and ending with the visit of the Magi in January. People feasted and drank, gave gifts, danced, and sang carols.
The carol about “Good King Wenceslaus” is only somewhat medieval. It was published in 1853 by John Mason Neale in Great Britain, the words inspired by medieval legends that described the king as pious and generous, constructing and visiting churches and giving to the poor. But Neale set it to a tune that was entirely medieval, originally for a 13th-century spring carol.
Wenceslaus was born in about 907 in Prague, son of the Duke of Bohemia. Legends say his family struggled between Christianity and paganism, but his Christian faith never wavered. He became the Duke at age 18 in 924 or 925.
In September 935, his brother Boleslav the Cruel and other nobles quarreled with him on the way to church and he was killed – legend says with his hand on the door of the church where he sought shelter from the attack.
Wenceslaus immediately became a saint and martyr with followers in Bohemia and England, extolled as a righteous king whose power arose in part from his piety. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I soon awarded him the posthumous title of king. Today he is the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
So although the words to the Christmas carol about Wenceslaus are modern, the tune and the sentiment in it come straight from the Middle Ages. Sing and celebrate during the holidays.