Good King Wenceslas — Charity, a Red Wedding, and the Ripoff of an Easter Song
It’s complicated — It’s very complicated
Explaining where exactly “Good King Wenceslas” comes from is about as complicated as the pronunciation of the song’s namesake. This is a Christmas classic with a story spanning multiple centuries and several European countries, culminating in a song with an extremely memorable melody and equally forgettable lyrics that have nothing to do with Christmas Day.
This song’s story starts in 10th century Bohemia, the westernmost part of present-day Czech Republic. Wenceslaus I was born in 907, and through a series of political moves that would make George R.R. Martin blush, became the Duke of Bohemia in 921. Like, seriously, his dad was a Christian and his mom was daughter of a pagan tribal priest, and when his father died and his grandmother became Regent, his mother sent out assassins to kill her mother-in-law. As soon as she became Regent, Wenceslaus’s mother initiated measures against the Christians, which Wenceslaus overturned when he took over the government in 924. In a classic bad boy move, he also exiled his mom when he assumed power.
Anyway, Wenceslaus was a pretty well liked dude. As the lyrics imply, Wenceslas was known for his selflessness and charity, which were heavily referenced in his four posthumous biographies that circulated in the decades after his death (which include some pretty crazy legends, like angels backing him up when he tried to 1V1 an invading count so the two armies wouldn’t have to clash). The person that seemed to dislike him the most was his brother Boleslav, who legit Red Wedding-ed him.
After his death, Wenceslaus’s legend spread across Europe through his multiple biographies, eventually becoming a powerful influence on the medieval concept of the “righteous king” (or rex Justus). Pretty much he became synonymous with the Jon Snow-style of leadership, by leading with selflessness and almsgiving to the poor and defenseless.
His reputation eventually came to the attention of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who posthumously granted Wenceslaus the title of King, which is where his title in the song originates. As for the misspelling in the song’s title, who knows?
Now that we have some context as to who Wenceslaus was, we can finally jump ahead to the 13th century, where some unknown person wrote a spring carol called “Tempus abest floridum,” or “The time is near for flowering.” Like the Winds of Winter and a Dream of Spring, it took around three hundred years for this melody to be published, finally landing in a Finnish song collection called Piae Cantiones in 1582. This song is more or less the base used to build “Good King Wenceslas,” but we have to jump ahead another several centuries for that.
In 1853, English hymn writer John Mason Neale published the carol, which combined the melody of “Tempus abest floridum” with lyrics he had written. Sort of. Neale’s lyrics are actually an English translation of a Czech poem by the poet Václav Alois Svoboda, according to older Czech sources.
The final song depicts Wenceslaus and a page going out and helping people on the Feast of Stephen. Saint Stephen’s Day is December 26th, and because Saint Stephen is often tied to charitable aid, acts of charity were also associated with the day. (Now we worship our one true god, Best Buy). This is pretty well the only Christmas connection, and though it isn’t actually on Christmas, it is technically the second of the twelve days of Christmas. Wenceslaus and his page see a peasant gathering things for the winter, and Wenceslaus orders his page to “bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine-logs hither,” so the peasant can have a nice evening with his duke.
Given his reputation, it’s entirely possible Wenceslaus would have done something like this, especially given the timing on the Feast of Saint Stephen. Like so many other Christmas songs, this one’s connection to the holiday is a bit of a stretch, but it actually does a decent job of representing the spirit of the season. Wenceslaus represents righteousness and charity, making him a natural fit for a season when people have the most to give and with harsh weather and long nights approaching, others have the most to suffer through.