December 23, 2003

The Invention of Tradition


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,
Tho' 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 them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Thro' 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, good my 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.

Now I did not expect to find this to be an actual translation from a Medieval Czech folk tradition--I expected to find that it was composed in the nineteenth century as part of the Czech nationalist movement. But no. I find instead that in 1853 an Anglican Divine, John Mason Neale, "chose Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity.  It quickly became a Christmas favorite, even though its words clearly indicate that Wenceslas ‘looked out’ on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas.  So Good King Wenceslas is actually a Boxing Day carol!  For a tune, Neale picked up a spring carol, originally sung with the Latin text 'Tempus adest floridum' or 'Spring has unwrapped her flowers'.  This original spring tune was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church and school songs."

Ah. The invention of tradition.

Nevertheless, Merry Christmas everyone.

Posted by DeLong at December 23, 2003 07:16 PM | TrackBack


Wenceslas (the Fourth) was a protector of the Hussites (who had in fact been influenced by the Englishman Wyclif). Only after Wenceslas' death did the evil Emperor Sigismund try to impose his will on the Czechs. Quite in vain, since Jan Zizka (one-eyed, at best) whipped his sorry ass again and again, until finally he decided that he had better things to do elsewhere.

The Hussites contributed many things to world civilization, including but not limited to defenestration.

Posted by: Zizka on December 23, 2003 08:00 PM


Another Tradition: Adding to the list of reindeer named in the poem "The Night Before in Christmas" written 1823 by Henry LIvingston (Clement Moore's authorship is disputed), RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER was created by a 34-year-old ad copywriter named Robert L. May for a 1939 Montgomery Ward Christmas booklet given to shoppers' children, then was written into a song by May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks in 1949 and sung by Gene Autry in the same year, becoming the second-best selling Christmas song next to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". Burl Ives covered the song again for a stop-motion animation in 1964, produced by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. Today I watched a five-year-old boy play the song about ten times...

Posted by: Lee A. on December 23, 2003 09:30 PM


"Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even"

You're making me unbearably nostalgic. I so enjoyed the irony of singing this in 37 degree Celsius heat in Brisbane Australia. Los Angeles isn't nearly warm enough for a decent Christmas.

Posted by: Mark Barton on December 23, 2003 10:49 PM


I think this story is misunderstood. The page was in cahoots with the mysterious character, who lived near a forest, but yet have travelled a fair distance, to look for firewood in the deep snow around the palace. Presumable heavily muffled against the cold, and by the weak moonlight the page was able to recognise him.
when the page showed up with a companion, the peasant disappears from the story, and the king marches the boy around in the snow until he cries uncle.

Posted by: big al on December 24, 2003 03:48 AM


And then there's Churchy LaFemme's version, in Pogo:
"Good King Sauerkraut looked out
On his feets uneven
While the snoo lay round about
Thick upon Saint Steven."
As I recall, this was accompanied by a banjo.

Posted by: Dr. BDH on December 26, 2003 03:57 PM


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