How Good Was King Wenceslas?

Good King Wenceslas may be the most heartily sung and least understood of all the Christmas carols. Who was this enigmatic Wenceslas and why do we sing about him? He was not a king, but rather the Duke of Bohemia (907-935). He was a good, benevolent nobleman who gave his life to spreading the gospel and expanding Christianity in his country. His brother, Boleslaus, however, was anything but good. Tragically, he ended up killing Wenceslas and succeeding him as duke. A century after his murder, Wenceslas was canonized as the patron saint of Bohemia (part of the modern Czech Republic).

The Christmas carol by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale is based on a popular legend of the life of Wenceslas. The tale concerns a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen, the second day of Christmas, December 26. During the journey, his servant is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by the heat miraculously emanating from the king’s footprints in the snow. Although the bouncy Scandinavian tune we use for the carol has been criticized for its lack of musical finesse, many love this joyful melody that supports the saga. It focuses on generosity and kindness, and giving to those less fortunate than ourselves. It is a chronicle about reaching out to the marginalized, the oppressed and the ostracized in our communities. It’s about the love of Jesus.

The question today is not who was the “good king,” but rather what can we do this Christmas to reach out and be a Wenceslas to others? Who will find warmth, life and love as they cross our paths this Christmas? We can rise to the challenge in the weeks leading up to Christmas, if we do our best to:

CONNECT—Christmas is about connecting with family and friends. However, some people do not have family and countless others have no friends. This Christmas, reach beyond your immediate family and circle of friends. Connecting with others will bring joy to your world.

INVITE—Christmas is a time for eating. It is a time for high-quality meals, delicious baking and seasonal delicacies. Invite someone new to your home. Your place doesn’t have to be big and the food doesn’t have to be fancy. That’s not the intent. The point is to invite someone new into your home environment. Get to know them and let them get to know you.

SERVE—Christmas is an opportunity to serve. Ask the question: “What can I do this year to help others?” The answer will come in many forms: ringing the bell at an Army kettle, serving at a homeless shelter, distributing toys to needy children, cleaning up after the countless Christmas parties or visiting shut-ins. Christmas is a time for serving people.

As the good carol says:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

TELL—Christmas is the occasion to proclaim anew the reason for the season. This Christmas, let your world know that the Saviour, Christ the Lord, is born. Our Immanuel, God with us, has come. He has transformed our lives and can change the lives of our new friends. It is the best gift we can give to others. Share the good news this Christmas.

May this Christmas be the best one ever for you. May you see the Christ Child in a new and wonderful way. May God bless you abundantly!

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

francis_william_cmsr_smlCommissioner William W. Francis is the Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army Canada and Bermuda Territory. His wife, Commissioner Marilyn Francis, is the Territorial President for Women’s Ministries. Commissioners Francis have two adult children, Captain William Marshall and Susan Marjorie, plus six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “How Good Was King Wenceslas?

  1. Rob Jeffery

    I have to admit, this is one of my favourite carols. The story it tells is beautiful. I especially love the part about the king’s footprints containing the warmth of his goodness (heat was in the very sod, which the saint had printed). Wonderful imagery.

  2. Doris Townsend

    This has always been one of my favourite carols. In the
    words I see the calling Christ gives us to help the poor and less
    fortunate and be “Christ” to others. The melody is very simple and
    easy to sing by anyone (even someone like myself who cannot carry a
    tune if I had a basket to carry it in).Interestingly my husband
    never did like the words or the melody but he never could tell me
    why. He never objected to it being sung however.

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