Monday, December 26, 2016
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay all about,
Deep and crisp and even....
So begins what is, to most of us, a very familiar Christmas carol. What, though, is the Feast of Stephen, and who was Wenceslas?
The Feast of Stephen is, in fact, today (a day which, where I am, in Eastern Standard Time, is rapidly fading), December 26, the day after Christmas. It is the day established to celebrate Saint Stephen, reckoned to have been the first martyr for the Christian faith (his story is told in Acts of the Apostles, chapters six and seven). "Good King Wenceslas", then, is really not a Christmas carol, but a day-after-Christmas carol. Nevertheless, it expresses what those of us who celebrate Christmas consider the true spirit of the holiday: bringing comfort and joy to others, especially to those less fortunate than us.
Wenceslas, sometimes spelled Wenceslaus, wasn't a king, at least during his lifetime. He was a Duke of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Emperor Otto I, of the Holy Roman Empire (later famously declared by Voltaire to be none of the above) bestowed on him the regnancy posthumously. Wenceslas was born around 908, and assumed ducal authority in 924 or 25. He was in contention with his younger brother Boreslaw (sometimes called "the Bad" or "the Cruel"), who had Wenceslas murdered in 935.
During his brief life and dukedom, Wenceslas was known for Christian piety and for deeds of kindness to the poor and unfortunate. We don't know if the words of the carol accurately reflect one of these deeds, but it seems intended to reflect his nature. Wenceslas was, like Stephen, declared a martyr for his faith and canonized as a saint.
The clip above is of a superb performance of "Good King Wenceslas" by the Roches at a Christmas concert at the long lost and lamented Bottom Line, in Greenwich Village, in 1990. Suzzy ("the Humble Servant"), on guitar, gives a long spoken introduction, evoking the sisters' late father and his love of the carol, which is well worth a listen. She's joined by sisters Maggie (the "Rich King") on keyboard, and Sarah (the "Lovely Narrator"), also on guitar.