The statue of Saint Wenceslas (Pomník svatého Václava) in the eponymous square in Prague, depicts Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia in Prague, Czech Republic, May 23, 2009. / Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2023 / 10:18 am (CNA).
Wenceslaus I is known by many titles: king, warrior, saint. Yet he is by far most popularly known as “Good King Wenceslas” in one of the most beloved Christmas carols of the 20th century.
During his time, he was a beloved Bohemian prince and now he is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Despite being remembered most during the Christmas season, however, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Wenceslaus, who lived 903–935 A.D., on Sept. 28.
The carol, which has been sung by such beloved stars as Bing Crosby and continues to be performed by Christmas choirs around the world, is still a very popular Christmas tune today.
The song tells the story of how on the feast of St. Stephen (Dec. 26), Wenceslaus, though a mighty ruler, was moved by the sight of a poor, freezing peasant and braved a bitter winter night’s cold to go out and care for him.
In the carol, Wenceslaus does not disdain to dine with a lowly peasant, being concerned only with the welfare and safety of the poor man.
By some supernatural power, the holy king’s very footsteps warm his young page’s path as they trek through the snow to help the peasant. The ode concludes with the beautiful Christian message that by giving without regard for oneself, one receives so much more.
In a way, the carol can be said to encapsulate the miraculous, even magical, spirit of Christmas itself.
When Wenceslaus’ page finds he can no longer endure the cruelness of the bitter night, the saint tells him to follow in his footsteps:
“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 shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
By this, Wenceslaus both helps the poor peasant and teaches his page that by boldly doing God’s will, one will find the warmth and peace to go on. In other words, by walking in the path of God through self-sacrifice and abandonment to God’s will, one finds comfort and joy.
Though the exact facts that led to the song’s creation are lost to history, Wenceslaus was indeed beloved by his people and renowned in his day as a pious and generous noble.
He was actually a duke and was given the title of “king” posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
Wenceslaus was born less than a hundred years after Sts. Cyril and Methodius first brought Christianity to Bohemia and the Slavic lands. His father, Duke Wratislaw, was Catholic while his mother, Princess Dragomir, was a practicing pagan.
Educated in the faith by his grandmother, who also became a canonized saint, St. Ludmilla, Wenceslaus grew to become a defender and promoter of the Catholic faith.
After the death of his father, Wenceslaus, though still very young, was faced with a political and spiritual crisis. His mother turned on the Catholic Church, purging Catholics from public office, closing churches, and preventing all Christian preaching.
While Wenceslaus could have chosen the path of less resistance and went along with his mother’s anti-Christian schemes, he chose to defy her and use his position to defend the Catholic faith.
The end result of the struggle was that Wenceslaus ruled one half of the realm, while his mother and brother, Boleslaus, who also hated the Catholic faith, ruled the other half.
Wenceslaus, who would have preferred to become a monk and not a duke, fortified himself in this struggle through fervent prayer, extreme asceticism, charitable service, and a vow of chastity. He is said to have built many churches throughout Bohemia and took extensive actions to care for the widowed, poor, and orphaned.
Meanwhile, his mother carried out a plot to kill Ludmilla, having her strangled in her private chapel. St. Ludmilla’s feast day is Sept. 16.
The Bohemian duke also faced the threat of invasion from abroad. When Prince Radislaus of Gurima demanded that Bohemia submit to his rule, Wenceslaus, seeking to avoid a war, challenged him to single combat. It is said that two angels appeared during the duel, deflecting the javelin thrown at Wenceslaus and immediately inspiring Radislaus to drop to his knees in surrender.
Just as his strict morals and Christian piety inspired the love of his subjects, it also further incited the hatred of his brother and some nobles who sought to subvert Wenceslaus’ rule.
Finally, on Sept. 28, 935, while Wenceslaus was praying in a chapel, he was attacked by Boleslaus and his henchmen. His brother dealt the final blow, running him through with a lance.
Boleslaus was so hated by the Bohemian people that he became known to history as “Boleslaus the Cruel.”
Wenceslaus was never forgotten by his adoring subjects who immortalized him in legends and folk songs, one of which would eventually become the carol we know today.
During his 2009 visit to the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict XVI called Wenceslaus “a martyr for Christ” who “had the courage to prefer the kingdom of heaven to the enticement of worldly power.”
Wenceslaus’ life serves as proof of a deeper power than that of the world.
While those nobles seeking their own gain and glory have long since been forgotten, Wenceslaus’ memory lives on. Though he did not seek glory and power for their own sake, his humble devotion to God and the Christian faith were the very attributes that have immortalized him in legend and history.
His example reminds us, at any point of the year, that it is far better to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33).
The final words of the Christmas carol sung throughout the world in his memory can serve as an inspiring reflection on the value and power of a life lived for God.
“In his masters step 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.”