Good King Winceslas: The Christmas Carol About A Kind Man

Kindness is rare these days, but in the 10th century, Good King Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic) was known for his kindness. His father converted to Christianity from paganism, but his mother, being the daughter of a pagan tribal chief, did not. His father died when Wenceslas was 13 and his mother immediately tried to turn him away from his faith in Christ. Wenceslas resisted and had her exiled when he became king at 18. 

Wenceslas was known far and wide for his acts of kindness. One biographer wrote this of his kind deeds: 

“Rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Wenceslas was loved by his people and he ruled them for a decade. However, at the young age of 28, Wenceslas was assassinated on his way to church by his brother. Fortunately, as a martyr, his influence lived on. He was canonized by the Catholic Church and is now the patron saint of the Czech state.

The carol Good King Wenceslas was written down in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale. As the story and the song tells, Wenceslas sees a poor man collecting wood on a cold December 26th evening, when the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated. Wenceslas finds out where the poor man lives, then along with his servant, he gathers meat, drink, and firewood and delivers it to the poor man’s home. On the way, his servant almost gives up because of the cold, but Wenceslas directs him to walk directly behind him. Miraculously, the servant feels the warmth of Wenceslas as he walks in the footprints of his master. The carol ends with a call to all Christians to bless the poor, and in doing so, find true blessings for themselves.

Even though Good King Wenceslas is not a song directly about Jesus, it is a song about someone who was Christlike at Christmastime. We could all learn a lesson from Wenceslas that kindness is a virtue worth keeping, especially if we are blessed with the means to bless others.

Click here to hear Bing Crosby sing Good King Wenceslas 

*Photo courtesy of Nathan Lemon and Unsplash

The Christmas Carol With The Surprise Ending

The original author of O Come, O Come Emmanuel is unknown, but it was most likely an 8th or 9th century monk or nun. Roughly 1000 years after it was written, an Anglican priest named John Mason Neale discovered the song while reading Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum, an ancient book of Latin poetry and music. 

Neale lived in the Madeira Islands near the continent of Africa, where he started an orphanage, a school for girls, and a ministry to reclaim prostitutes. He understood many languages, including Latin, and was able to translate O Come, O Come Emmanuel into English. He first played and sang it for the people he served, who were considered the lowest of society. It was so well received that Neale included the song in his 1851 collection titled Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is written as if you are in the first century and you are awaiting the actual birth of the Messiah. An anticipation is there for what Jesus would bring. The original Latin text contains seven antiphons (verses) which work together to help the reader or singer to focus on the coming Christmas. Most modern hymnals do not include all seven and rarely in the same order as the original. Here are those verses in order and their related meanings:

  • O Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (Hebrew for God)
  • O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) 
  • O Clavis David (Key of David)
  • O Oriens (Dayspring)
  • O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • O Emmanuel (God with Us)

You can see from the order above that the 8th and 9th century Christians sang these verses in the opposite order as most people today. Most importantly, they sang the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse last and wouldn’t do so until Christmas Eve. They did this because of the fulfillment of the song and the expectation of Jesus’ birth. 

Here’s the coolest thing.

The original Latin text creates a reverse acrostic which is not complete or seen until the last verse is sung. When the ancient worshipers finally sang this verse on Christmas Eve, the message of the reverse acrostic was solved for all the see. It simply proclaimed, “I shall be with you tomorrow.”

Click here to hear For King and Country’s version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Click here for Anna Hawkins version in English and Hebrew filmed in Israel

*Image courtesy of Mike Ralph and Unsplash.com