This carol tells the story of a Bohemian king going out on the Feast of Saint Stephen (the second day of Christmas) in a harsh winter and being moved to give alms to a hungry peasant. As the verses continue, the King’s page debates whether or not to continue looking for the King out in the storm, but is emboldened by seeing the King’s footprints in the snow and continues his search.
King Wenceslas refers to Saint Wenceslaus, sometimes called Václav the Good, who was the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 935 and venerated as “the righteous king” for his great piety and charity. After his murder in 935, he was sainted and Holy Roman Emperor Otto bestowed on Wenceslaus the posthumous title of King. Good King Wenceslas is sung to the tune of Tempus Adest Floridum (“It is Time for Flowering”), a 13th Century carol for springtime, the same tune used for the lesser known 20th Century carol Mary Gently Laid Her Child.
Good King Wenceslas 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,
Gath'ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know'st 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 him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together
Through the rude 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 shalt 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.
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.