John Larrysson Column: Good King Wenceslas? (1)
Who was Good King Wenceslas?

The song Good King Wenceslas is often heard at Christmastime. However many second-language learners do not fully understand the meaning of the song. This week I will explain who Wenceslas was. Next week, and the week after, I will explain some of the more difficult words in the song. Even though school children are asked to sing it, this is not an easy song to understand.

[audio 1]

Who was he? This song is about a rich man named Wenceslas (905-932) who saw a poor man gathering wood. The poor man would need to burn the wood to keep warm in the cold winter. Wenceslas decided to help the poor man. Wenceslas and a servant went out to the poor man's home with food, wine and extra firewood in very cold weather. The servant suffered from the cold, but Wenceslas miraculously kept him warm.

The song is a rewritten version of an older song in Church Latin called Piae Cantiones from 1582. The most popular version (1853) is that of J. M. Neale (1818-1866) and it has long been in the public domain.

[audio 2]

Wenceslas was a Christian saint and Duke of Bohemia. Bohemia is now part of the Czech Republic. At the time Bohemia was torn by religious wars. His father Duke Wratislaw and his grandmother (St. Ludmilla) were Christian. His mother (Dragomir) and his brother (Boleslaw) were not Christians. They followed the old northern European gods. His brother murdered Wenceslas to stop the spread of Christianity. It did not work. People created stories describing how good and kind Wenceslas was. After his death, Wenceslas was called a king as a special gift by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. (There are more than one spelling of the names in this story. For example, Wenceslas is also spelt: Vaclav and Vaceslav. I am using the most common spellings.)

[audio 3]

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.

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 shone the moon that night,

tho' the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight,

gathering 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.

"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.

General Enquiry

We welcome enquiries and feedback. Please contact us through [email protected]