The Feast of Stephen and Good King Wenceslaus

This was going to be a simple post about “Good King Wenceslaus” but I was surprised in the course of my research.

First, the lyrics:

Good King Wenceslaus 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, gathering winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou knowst 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 them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold 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 shall 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,
He who now will bless the poor shall himself find blessing.

Love it. These were written in 1853 by John Mason Neale. I was surprised to find that while this carol is a popular one today, many people were scandalized that the lyrics were set to Tempus adest floridum(“It is time for flowering”), a 13th-century spring carol published in a Finnish book.

Translation:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, day is fast reviving,
Life in all her growing powers towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold, winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould, now make up for lost time.
Herb and plant that, winter long, slumbered at their leisure,
Now bestirring, green and strong, find in growth their pleasure;
All the world with beauty fills, gold the green enhancing,
Flowers make glee among the hills, set the meadows dancing.
Through each wonder of fair days God Himself expresses;
Beauty follows all His ways, as the world He blesses:
So, as He renews the earth, Artist without rival,
In His grace of glad new birth we must seek revival.
Earth puts on her dress of glee; flowers and grasses hide her;
We go forth in charity—brothers all beside her;
For, as man this glory sees in th’awakening season,
Reason learns the heart’s decrees, hearts are led by reason.
Praise the Maker, all ye saints; He with glory girt you,
He Who skies and meadows paints fashioned all your virtue;
Praise Him, seers, heroes, kings, heralds of perfection;
Brothers, praise Him, for He brings all to resurrection!

Well, I can see how that might have been a little out of place. For us today the lyrics and the melody seem inextricably wedded.

St. Wenceslaus
St. Stephen

   There is something else interesting I noted: the date of the feast of St. Stephen the first martyr. Western tradition celebrates it on December 26th, the day after Christmas. In the east it is celebrated on December 27th. As Orthodox we celebrate the Synaxis of the Theotokos on the 26th. It was in the 7th century that the feast of the Protomartyr Stephen was moved from the second to the 3rd day of Christmas, the 27th. Amusingly, the feast of St. Wenceslaus is September 28th although everyone seems to associate him more with the feast of St. Stephen.

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