More than any other Christmas song, Good King Wenceslas is a mutt of an endeavor. Most of the traditional carols were at least partially derived from traditional folk songs, of course, and so most have evolved with at least a pinch of musical cross breeding. But John Mason Neale’s classic doesn’t just have a varied DNA; it’s practically duct-taped together.
Before we dive in, however, here is a classic Mel Torme rendition:
The song’s narrative is based on the stories surrounding the real life Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century. His mother’s side of the family were devout pagans, his father’s devotedly Christian. Legend has it that after his father’s death, Wenceslaus’s soul was the battlefield where his pagan mother and Christian paternal grandmother waged a theological war. Wenceslaus’s soul turned out to be much like most of Europe over time, as his grandmother’s Christianity eventually pushed aside his mother’s paganism.
Though he would later be depicted as a pious and peaceful man, Wenceslaus was actually an ambitious and skillfully violent warrior. At the age of 18 he overthrew his region’s local governance. His eventual fealty to Henry the Fowler won him the title of Duke of Bohemia, which is that area where Prague is now located. His maternal side of the family aside, he used the power and finances of his seat to erect many Catholic churches throughout his lands, largely purging the region of paganism in the process.
The church rewarded this devotion to Catholicism richly, even if after his death. Holy Roman Emperor Otto granted him the title of King posthumously, and Pious II declared him an official Saint. The hymn commissioned by the church to honor his elevation, Saint Wenceslaus, is the oldest known Czeck song. It is not, however, related to the song we now sing each Christmas season, musically speaking.
The melody of Good King Wenceslas is actually stolen from a 13th century Finnish carol, Tempus Adest Floridum. That carol, however, is a celebration of Spring. In fact, here is the first verse:
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 lo-o-o-st time.
The man who would write the lyrics of the song we now know as Good King Wenceslas, John Mason Neale, was a 19th century Londoner and Anglican priest. In his life Neale wrote two renowned book of carols: Carols for Christmas-tide, and Carols for Easter-tide.
Like James Lord Pierpont before him, Neale wrote his now-revered holiday song during that time when people were still trying to decide what, if anything, a celebration of Christmas should be. Whatever his own opinion of the matter, Neale clearly believed Christmas should have little to do with the story of Good King Wenceslas, which he published as part of his Easter collection. This was a most curious choice, especially considering how the Feast of St. Stephen figures so centrally in Wenceslas’ lyrics. The public thought the decision daft, and chose to sing it at yuletide despite Neale’s desires otherwise.
When you consider the song’s admittedly sloppy pedigree — a Christmas ditty about a Czech duke put to a Finnish spring carol by an London Anglican priest hoping to tell an Easter story — it is perhaps unsurprising that it has been so disrespected over the years. Famed Christmas music historian Elizabeth Poston dismissed it as “ponderous mongrel doggerel,” and H.J. Masse acidly suggested it was “marked in ignorance.” The Oxford Book of Carols just shook its head at the song’s popularity, describing it as “poor and commonplace to the last degree.” And as many modern readers are already aware, the famed British satirist Terry Pratchett utterly skewers the carol in his book Hogfather. Still, it’s pretty unfair to declare a Christmas carol unworthy simply for the crimes of being light and saccharine.
Tempus Adest Floridum, the Finnish carol which gave its melody to Wenceslas, was originally a song for dancing, and so it’s probably unsurprising that I am drawn toward those renditions that arrange Good King Wenceslas around an up-tempo swing. It’s not available on YouTube, but you can hear my favorite recording, by the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, on iTunes here and on Spotify here. If you are just not into traditional jazz — and shame on you if this is the case — the song also does well when arranged for traditional Celtic instrumentation. Here is a good take on the carol by the Celtic Nots:
And for those lovers of trivia, here’s a spontaneous version sung by the Beatles on an early Christmas fan-club record: