First, the lyrics:
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.
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.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
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.”
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.