Good King Wenceslas

"Good King Wenceslas" is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language "Venceslav".

In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published by Novello & Co in 1853.[1][2] Neale's lyrics were set to the melody of 13th-century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.

Source legend

Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death in the 10th century, when a cult of Wenceslas rose up in Bohemia and in England.[3] Within a few decades of Wenceslas' death, four biographies of him were in circulation.[4][5] These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex iustus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.[6]

Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, a preacher from 12th century says:[7][8]

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, 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.

Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II,[9] who himself also walked ten miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.[10]

Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962–973) posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a "king".[11] The usual English spelling of Duke Wenceslas's name, Wenceslaus, is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol, although it was not used by Neale in his version.[12] Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.


Tempus adest floridum

The tune is that of "Tempus adest floridum" ("It is time for flowering"), a 13th-century spring carol in 76 76 Doubled Trochaic metre first published in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones in 1582. Piae Cantiones is a collection of seventy-four songs compiled by Jacobus Finno, the Protestant headmaster of Turku Cathedral School, and published by Theodoric Petri, a young Catholic printer. The book is a unique document of European songs intended not only for use in church, but also schools, thus making the collection a unique record of the late medieval period.[13]

A text beginning substantially the same as the 1582 "Piae" version is also found in the German manuscript collection Carmina Burana as CB 142, where it is substantially more carnal; CB 142 has clerics and virgins playing the "game of Venus" (goddess of love) in the meadows, while in the Piae version they are praising the Lord from the bottom of their hearts.[14][15]

The text of Neale's carol bears no relationship to the words of "Tempus Adest Floridum".[16] In or around 1853, G. J. R. Gordon, the British envoy and minister in Stockholm, gave a rare copy of the 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones to Neale, who was Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex and to the Reverend Thomas Helmore (Vice-Principal of St. Mark's College, Chelsea). The book was entirely unknown in England at that time. Neale translated some of the carols and hymns, and in 1853, Novello & Co published twelve Neale and Helmore carols in Carols for Christmas-tide (with music from Piae Cantiones). In 1854, Novello & Co published a dozen more Neale and Helmore carols in Carols for Easter-tide and it was in these collections that Neale's original hymn was first published.

The tune has also been used for the Christmas hymn Mary Gently Laid Her Child, by Joseph S. Cook (1859–1933);[17] GIA's hymnal, Worship uses "Tempus Adest Floridum" only for Cook's hymn.[18]

Neale's carol

John Mason Neale published the carol Good King Wenceslas in 1853, although he may have written his carol some time earlier, since he carried on the legend of St Wenceslas (the basis of this story) in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Neale was known for his devotion to High Church traditions.

The hymn's lyrics take the form of five eight-line stanzas in four-stress lines. Each stanza has an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme. Lines 1, 3, 5, and 7 end in single-syllable (so-called masculine) rhymes, and lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 with two-syllable ("feminine") rhymes. (In the English tradition, two-syllable rhymes are generally associated with light or comic verse, which may be part of the reason some critics have demeaned Neale's lyrics as "doggerel".) In the music the two-syllable rhymes in lines 2, 4, and 6 (e.g. "Stephen/even", "cruel/fuel") are set to two half-notes (British "minims"), but the final rhyme of each stanza (line 8) is spread over two full measures, the first syllable as two half-notes and the second as a whole note ("semi-breve")—so "fuel" is set as "fu-" with two half-notes and "-el" with a whole-note. Thus, unusually, the final musical line differs from all the others in having not two but three measures of 4/4 time.

Neale's words are now in the public domain.[19][20]

Academics tend to be critical of Neale's textual substitution. H. J. L. J. Massé wrote in 1921:

Why, for instance, do we tolerate such impositions as "Good King Wenceslas?" The original was and is an Easter is marked in carol books as "traditional", a delightful word which often conceals ignorance. There is nothing traditional in it as a carol.[21]

A similar sentiment is expressed by the editors (Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams) in the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, which is even more critical of Neale's carol.[22]

This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol...Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call "doggerel", and Bullen condemns as "poor and commonplace to the last degree". The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting...not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time.[22]

Elizabeth Poston, in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, referred to it as the "product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol". She goes on to detail how Neale's "ponderous moral doggerel" does not fit the light-hearted dance measure of the original tune, and that if performed in the correct manner "sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words;"[23] a similar development has arisen with the song O Christmas Tree, whose tune has been used for Maryland, My Maryland, The Red Flag, and other non-related songs.

Textual comparison

Neale's "Good King Wenceslas" (1853)[22] "Tempus adest floridum"
(Piae Cantiones, PC 74)[22]
English translation of PC 74 by
Percy Dearmer (1867–1936)[22]
"Tempus adest floridum"
(Carmina Burana, CB 142)[14]
English translation of CB 142 by
John Addington Symonds (1884)[24]
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.
Tempus adest floridum, surgunt namque flores
Vernales in omnibus, imitantur mores
Hoc quod frigus laeserat, reparant calores
Cernimus hoc fieri, per multos labores.
Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, the day is fast reviving,
Life in all her growing powers towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold, winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould, now make up for lost time.
Tempus adest floridum, surgunt namque flores
vernales mox; in omnibus immutantur mores.
Hoc, quod frigus laeserat, reparant calores;
Cernimus hoc fieri per multos colores.
Now comes the time of flowers, and the blossoms appear;
now in all things comes the transformation of Spring.
What the cold harmed, the warmth repairs,
as we see by all these colours.
"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."
Sunt prata plena floribus, iucunda aspectu
Ubi iuvat cernere, herbas cum delectu
Gramina et plantae hyeme quiescunt
Vernali in tempore virent et accrescunt.
Herb and plant that, winter long, slumbered at their leisure,
Now bestirring, green and strong, find in growth their pleasure;
All the world with beauty fills, gold the green enhancing,
Flowers make glee among the hills, set the meadows dancing
Stant prata plena floribus, in quibus nos ludamus!
Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus,
Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus,
ceteris virginibus ut hoc referamus!
The fields in which we play are full of flowers.
Maidens and clerics, let us go out together,
let us play for the love of Venus,
that we may teach the other maidens.
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
Haec vobis pulchre monstrant Deum creatorem
Quem quoque nos credimus omnium factorem
O tempus ergo hilare, quo laetari libet
Renovato nam mundo, nos novari decet.
Through each wonder of fair days God Himself expresses;
Beauty follows all His ways, as the world He blesses:
So, as He renews the earth, Artist without rival,
In His grace of glad new birth we must seek revival.
"O dilecta domina, cur sic alienaris?
An nescis, o carissima, quod sic adamaris?
Si tu esses Helena, vellem esse Paris!
Tamen potest fieri noster amor talis."
"O my chosen one, why dost thou shun me?
Dost thou not know, dearest, how much thou art loved?
If thou wert Helen, I would be Paris.
So great is our love that it can be so."
"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."
Terra ornatur floribus et multo decore
Nos honestis moribus et vero amore
Gaudeamus igitur tempore iucundo
Laudemusque Dominum pectoris ex fundo.
Earth puts on her dress of glee; flowers and grasses hide her;
We go forth in charity—brothers all beside her;
For, as man this glory sees in th'awakening season,
Reason learns the heart's decrees, hearts are led by reason
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.

Other versions

  • The Beatles' 1963 Christmas Record featured several renditions of the carol.
  • Walt Kelly's Pogo cartoon strip spoofs the song as "Good King Sauerkraut" and "Good King Winkelhoff".
  • In the film Love Actually, Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant) sings the carol at the home of three small girls to explain his presence there while he is knocking on doors randomly searching for his love interest.
  • In the British show Miranda, Penny plays the song on the piano with altered lyrics.
  • In the Scottish film Filth, Dr Rossi sings the song with altered lyrics.
  • Two Doctor Who episodes have referenced the song. In the first episode of the 1975 series "Genesis of the Daleks", the Doctor and his companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry find themselves in the middle of a minefield on the Dalek home planet Skaro. The Doctor turns to them and says, "Follow me and tread in my footsteps." Sarah Jane looks at Harry and remarks, "Good King Wenceslas." In the 2007 Christmas special entitled "Voyage of the Damned", an alien tour guide on board an alien spaceship replica of the Titanic mistakenly believes that Good King Wenceslas is the current monarch of the United Kingdom while explaining Earth's history.
  • In the television special A Muppet Family Christmas, Gonzo sings this song.
  • In the movie The Muppet Christmas Carol, Bean Bunny sings this song to Scrooge. An instrumental rendition of the song is also played during the opening credits.
  • In the Discworld book Hogfather, the carol is slightly 'twisted' during a scene when Death, while acting as the Hogfather, encounters a king trying to give a beggar his feast as an act of charity, with Death criticizing the king's actions as simply wanting to be praised on Hogswatch night as he has never shown any concern for the beggar before nor will so in the future, forcing the king out and leaving the beggar with plainer food that is nevertheless more to his liking.
  • Buford and Baljeet sing this song with altered lyrics in A Phineas and Ferb Family Christmas.
  • The song is begun by guests of The Simpsons in "White Christmas Blues". Marge, who doesn't like second verses of Christmas carols, remarks this one creeps her out from the beginning and leaves the room to listen to a blender.[26]
  • In The Polar Express, the song is played briefly in one scene where the Polar Express passes the Herpolsheimer's store and in another scene, where the hobo sings it while playing the hurdy-gurdy.
  • The setting of Gene Wolfe's novel The Devil in a Forest is based on the second verse of the carol, which is given as the epigraph to the book.
  • The 1987 BBC radio play Crisp and Even Brightly, by Alick Rowe, is a comedic re-telling of the story in the carol, starring Timothy West as Wenceslas, and featuring a page called Mark and other characters not found in the carol.[27]
  • On the Will & Grace season 6 episode "All About Christmas Eve", Karen sings the song with both Jack and Will to a bellman at her suite at the Palace Hotel.
  • On the Big Bang Theory episode "The Santa Simulation", Sheldon sings the song while playing Dungeons & Dragons with Leonard, Howard and Stuart, so that his character in the game can avoid danger. Sheldon insists on singing the entire song, even though he only needs to sing the first verse to complete his task.
  • In a blooper reel of the fourth season of TV series Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) start singing and dancing to the carol when entering the throne room during Tyrion's trial.
  • In an episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert sings the song with Michael Stipe and Mandy Patinkin.
  • In the Porridge Christmas Special, "No Way Out", Norman Stanley Fletcher and his fellow inmates sing the carol - until they are hushed by Mr. Mackay. In place of "When a poor man came in sight gathering winter fuel" comes: "When a Scotsman came in sight hollerin’...".
  • Comedian John Finnemore wrote a sketch for his Souvenir Programme based on the carol, in which the poor man criticises King Wenceslas for bringing unnecessary fuel and flesh, and for making his page carry them in the cold weather.[28]
  • In an episode of Hogan's Heroes, several of the POWs loudly and repeatedly rehearse the song in order to distract the guards from the covert activities of the rest of the team.
  • At the ironic ending of Frederik Pohl's Science Fiction novel Jem, human colonists on a faraway planet developed the habit of celebrating Christmas by taking off their clothes and engaging in a wild orgy, their copulations accompanied by a chorus of the planet's enslaved indigenous beings singing "Good King Wenceslas", whose Christian significance was long forgotten.
  • The song was parodied by the British children's television programme, Horrible Histories. In this version, carol singers attempt to give a more historically accurate portrayal of the king, including a line about his murder. [29]


  1. Shane Weller (1992-06-09). Christmas Carols: Complete Verses. p. 19. ISBN 9780486273976. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  2. "Good King Wenceslas". 2006-09-30. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  3. Describing the Codex Gigas, a thirteenth-century manuscript from Bohemia in the Swedish National Library in Stockholm, it is stated: "All this bears witness to the outstanding importance of the cult of Václav in Bohemia at the time of the Devil's Bible's compilation. Moreover, all three festivals are inscribed in red ink, denoting their superlative degree. "
  4. The First Slavonic Life (in Old Church Slavonic), the anonymous Crescente fide, the Passio by Gumpold, bishop of Mantua (d. 985), and The Life and Passion of Saint Václav and his Grandmother Saint Ludmilla (in Czech language she named Ludmila) by Kristian.
  5. Lisa Wolverton's Hastening Toward Prague: Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Lands, p. 150. Available online at .
  6. See Defries, David. "St. Oswald's Martyrdom: Drogo of Saint-Winnoc's Sermo secundus de s. Oswaldo", §12, in The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Mediaeval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006). Archived 2013-11-09 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Wolverton, Lisa (2001). Hastening towards Prague: Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Lands. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 150.
  8. Shuler, Eric (2010). Almsgiving and the Formation of Early Medieval Societies, A.D. 700-1025. A Dissertation. Indiana: University of Notre Dame. p. 1.
  9. "Good King Wenceslas". Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  10. Archived May 29, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  11. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Wenceslaus". 1912-10-01. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  12. Wencesla-us is the Mediaeval Latin form of the name, declined in the Second Declension.
  13. Jeremy Summerly, Let Voices Resound: Songs from Piae Cantiones, Naxos 8.553578
  14. "bibliotheca Augustana". Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  15. "Tempus Adest Floridum" was translated into English as "The Flower Carol", and was recorded by Jean Ritchie on the album Carols for All Seasons (1959), with its original melody, now usually recognized as the "Good King Wenceslas" tune.
  16. "Tempus Adest Floridum". Archived from the original on 2016-08-05. Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  17. Joseph S. Cook, Mary Gently Laid Her Child, in Worship (2012), Fourth Edition, Chicago: GIA Publications, Hymn 446.
  18. "Tune Index", in Worship (2012), Fourth Edition, Chicago: GIA Publications. Indexes downloadable at . Accessed 2014 January 3.
  19. "Carols for Christmas-tide. Set to ancient melodies and harmonized for voices and pianoforte. " by Thomas Helmore and J. M. Neale, published by J. Alfred Novello, London & New York (1853)
    In the collection of the Harvard Music Society library, Boston.
  20. "Wayback Machine". Retrieved 2018-05-17.
  21. H. J. L. J. Massé, "Old Carols" in Music & Letters, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1921), Oxford University Press, p.67
  22. "Good King Wenceslas" in Oxford Book of Carols, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)
  23. Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1965)
  24. "Full text of "English lyrical poetry from its origins to the present time"". Retrieved 2015-11-18.
  25. Mel Tormé - Topic (19 October 2016). "Good King Wenceslas". YouTube. Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  26. "25x08 - White Christmas Blues - The Simpsons Transcripts - Forever Dreaming". Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  27. "Alick Rowe - Crisp and Even Brightly". BBC Radio 4 Extra. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  28. "John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme: Good King Wenceslas". Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  29. "Horrible Histories - Good King Wenceslas". Retrieved 7 April 2019.
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