The Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” is based on historical fact. However, in order to truly appreciate the song, you’ll need a brief history lesson…
During the Dark Ages, most of Europe was still pagan. This was true of the royal family of Bohemia. However, Wenceslaus, eldest son of the Duke of Bohemia, was raised by his grandmother, Ludmilla. She was a devout Christian woman who taught her grandson about her faith.
In 922, when Wenceslaus was fifteen, his father was killed in battle making him the ruling Duke. Unfortunately, his twin brother, Boleslaus, didn’t accept his rule and attempted to overthrow him. The teenage Duke took charge, put down the rebellion, and in an act of Christian charity, forgave his brother by banishing him from the kingdom instead of being executed for treason. The citizens of Bohemia were amazed by his mercy.
Wenceslaus tried his best to follow the teaching of Christianity. Whenever possible, he shared what he could with his subjects. He took pity on the poor and encouraged those people blessed with good fortune to share with the less fortunate. Due to his influence, many citizens turned from paganism and became Christian.
Wenceslaus loved Christmas. Well before gift giving became part of the holiday, he would share his bounty with others. Each Christmas Eve, inspired by compassion, the Duke would visit the neediest families and bring gifts of food, firewood, and clothing. After exchanging holiday greetings with every member of the household, he would go back out into the snow to the next family. For many people, a Christmas Eve visit by the duke was a special reason to celebrate.
One day in 929, as Wenceslaus was about to enter the church for his daily prayers, he heard a familiar voice. It was his exiled brother with some of his pagan friends. As Boleslaus approached his brother, he stabbed him. Falling to his knees, Wenceslaus looked to the heavens and whispered “Brother, may God forgive you” and died. At that moment, Boleslaus realized what he had done and rejected his former companions. Turning to his brother’s faith, he kept the legend of Wenceslaus alive.
Which leads us to the second part of the story…
John Mason Neale was a priest and a reformer who continually reached out to the less fortunate – prostitutes, thieves, and murderers. In his spare time, Neale would translate ancient Latin songs and text into English to use during church services. During his research, he discovered the biography on Wenceslaus. Believing that Wenceslaus would make a great role model for the children, Neale rewrote the tale, changing the spelling of his name and making the Duke a King.
The song quickly became a Christmas favorite with its example of one man’s faith, hope, and charity. Even now, no matter how or why you celebrate Christmas, “Good King Wenceslas” can remind us all to reach out and do something kind for someone:
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing.
Ye who now will bless the poor.
Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Have you blessed or been blessed by someone this Christmas? Leave a comment below and may the spirit of Christmas remain with you throughout the year!