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Songs of Yesterday: How Our Ancestors Sang in the Holiday, Part 1

When we sing the songs our ancestors sang, we can connect to them. When we understand where those songs came from, we can connect to history and, possibly, our own ancestral culture. These concepts come to life in the historical background of a Christmas favorite, "Good King Wenceslaus," written by John Mason Neale.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Jean Hibben
Word Count: 1673 (approx.)
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Editor Note: Hear the author perform Good King Wenceslaus. To order the complete CD, see Songs of Holidays Past.

There are so many "icons" connected to the Christmas holidays, most in recent years, that we often forget which are real and which are products of (commercial) imagination. I remember being in high school and introduced to a new Christmas carol, "The Little Drummer Boy" (originally titled "Carol of the Drums," even though there was only one drum). It was 1958, but the song dates back to the early 1940s - it just needed a catchy recording to bring it to the attention of the world (Estrella). Nonetheless, comparatively speaking, it is a very new holiday favorite. Other songs, immortalizing "creatures" that were not present at the original Christmas, also originated in the 20th Century: a couple of examples are "Frosty the Snowman" (1950, by Nelson and Rollins) (Estrella) and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1939, by May), the latter being part of a Montgomery Ward campaign that originated as a poem in book form and then, later, was put to music by Johnny Marks (Mikkelson & Mikkelson). Today's children (and many adults) consider those songs as traditional as "Silent Night" (1816) and "We Three Kings" (1857).

Of course, much has been written about the legendary Santa Claus, in all his various forms, and songs singing his praises are well-known by children of all ages. Whether "we'd better watch out" for him, he is "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" (leaning "his ear this way"), or he is "up on the house top" where the "reindeer pause," Santa is as much a part of Christmas as the man for whom the holiday is named (who, I do believe, has many more Christmas songs named in His honor, and rightfully so). Some believe Santa was inspired by the legend of the very real King Wenceslaus (also spelled Wenceslas and Winceslas). However it is spelled, this man inspired a holiday favorite that has been sung since the mid-1800s.

The Bohemian legend tells us that Duke Wenceslaus the Holy was known for uncommonly generous behaviors. Bohemia was subject to his rule during the 10th Century, though only for a very short period of time, and his people were grateful for that time of peace. He was a kind ruler whose benevolence was especially prominent on Christmas and the Day of the Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr (26 December). His belief that one receives blessings from the kindnesses they bestow on others is the admonition of the final verse, of course (Grant & Wilbur). The story of the man who put the comforts of his people above his own (as evident in the lyrics) so inspired clergyman and songwriter John Mason Neale that the latter immortalized the benevolent ruler, who might otherwise have been forgotten to history, in a memorable poem, and is an interesting parallel of writer and subject as well (Collins).

Wenceslaus, and his twin brother Boleslaus, born in 907, sons of Vratislaus, the Duke of Borivoy, were raised by their grandmother, Ludmilla, who taught the youngsters what it meant to be a good Christian and instructed them on the virtues of "faith, hope, and charity." Apparently the lessons did not sit well with Boleslaus, or perhaps it was the fact that he was the younger brother, albeit, by only a few minutes, as his reputation was nothing like that of his twin, Wenceslaus. When their father died in battle in 922, the boys were just fifteen years old. The older twin, Wenceslaus (which, in Czech, is Václav) was advanced to the role of duke, much to the irritation of Boleslaus (which, in Czech, is Boleslav) (Studwell).

While the new duke attempted to rise to power with the lessons of his grandmother firmly implanted in his brain and actions, his brother and mother, Drahomira, proceeded to plot against him. The plan: overthrow Wenceslaus so that the younger brother could be put into power. The procedure: first assassinate grandma! With a full-fledged group of pagan revolutionaries, they killed the woman during her prayers, then proceeded to attempt to dethrone the country's leader. But Wenceslaus was not so easily removed from his position and, even at his young age, managed to regain control, succeeding in squashing the rebellion. At this point, most of us would assume that Wenceslaus would have the rebellion leaders - his brother and mother - put to death; but that was not the style with which this mild-mannered duke chose to rule. He exiled his remaining family, exhibiting extraordinary mercy in that action, proving that his grandmother's lessons did not go unnoticed (Collins).

During his rule, Wenceslaus was known to frequently give, and generously, at that, to widows, orphans, prisoners, and others who were in need. He was dubbed, by the Cosmas of Prague, "the father of all the wretched" and a just king (even though he was, in reality a duke; the legitimate title of "king" was bestowed on him posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto) (Wikipedia). He did just as the song says: he traveled to the poor with firewood and food and encouraged others to similarly donate to those in need. He approached his rule as though he was "answering to a higher authority," and it was the love of God, not the thirst for power, that drove him to action. And he loved the Christmas holiday time; even before the tradition of gift-giving was popular, the holiday brought out the generosity that he so freely demonstrated as the spirit of the season. He began his "rounds" on Christmas eve, attempting to visit everyone within his jurisdiction, bringing whatever they might need and delighting the families with his appearance (Collins).

But benevolence was not a once-a-year experience for Wenceslaus, and he was kind to his subjects throughout his daily life, which always began with prayers in church. It was just such a beginning of one of his days in 929 (or 935, according to some sources) that he was confronted by his formerly exiled brother and a gang of the latter's revolutionaries. Boleslaus's confederates surrounded the surprised ruler and stabbed him; his last words were to his twin: "Brother, may God forgive you." The pagan leaders who had been instrumental in this revolt would then be expected to partner with Boleslaus in his new regime, but they must have been quite alarmed to find that their comrade was no longer "one of them." Boleslaus forsook his former lawless lifestyle and took a page from Wenceslaus's book, ruling Bohemia with the same sort of benevolence and faith his brother embraced (Collins).

While at least one source states that Boleslaus's repentance was an immediate response to his brother's death, others suggest it was more of a gradual transformation. In either case, he is said to have practiced Christianity and raised his son to be a clergyman (Aquinas & More). Whatever the time frame for the religious and moral conversion of Boleslaus, Christianity in Bohemia flourished under his rule (Absolute Astronomy). Boleslaus also had his brother's relics removed to St. Vitus Cathedral where the murdered ruler was numbered as one of the martyrs who died for his faith, not for his politics (Aquinas & More). It is said that the Czech symbol of the crown is the Crown of Wenceslaus and was introduced as the Bohemian symbol by Boleslaus (Collins).

But there is more to this carol than the subject of its verses. The author, John Mason Neale, as mentioned, came from a religious, as well as a scholastic, background. His interest in the lives of the saints led him to finding the story of the Duke who became a King, and he identified with the life of this exemplary man. Like Wenceslaus, Neale (1818-1866) could often be found trying to minister to the downtrodden - thieves, prostitutes, and worse - attempting to aid them in reformation, much to the chagrin of some of his fellow "Christians," who were upset by his lowering himself to associate with the less fortunate (Collins). Neale, a graduate of Cambridge University, used his knowledge of Greek and Latin to translate a number of hymns, some that we still sing today (e.g., "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel") (Grant & Wilbur).

When it came time to give the lyrics a tune, Neale selected "Tempus Adest Floridum," written in the 13th Century and which translates to "Spring has unwrapped her flowers" (Wikipedia). The original tune was played in a much livelier tempo than most of us perform "Good King Wenceslas" (Poston). Some consider that the choice of melody is an interesting irony: the gifts Wenceslaus bestowed upon his subjects were like springtime to them (Collins).

For those of us with Bohemian ancestry, this story has particular meaning: this unique family had contact with our forebears. Our ancestors were under the rule of Wenceslaus and then Boleslaus; in the case of the former, maybe their very survival (and, hence, ours) was positively affected by the generosity of their duke. For those of you without ancestry in that kingdom, it is possible the song that has immortalized Wenceslaus continues to flourish because you and/or your ancestors have helped to keep it alive. Either way, the existence of "Good King Wenceslaus" in our holiday tradition will continue to help us connect with those who have gone on, and sung on, before.

Resources:

Absolute Astronomy. "Boleslaus I of Bohemia," AbsoluteAstronomy.com: Exploring the Universe, accessed 11 November 2009.

Aquinas & More. "Good King Wenceslaus: The Christmas Carol and the Saint," Aquinas & More: Catholic Goods, accessed 11 November 2009.

Collins, Ace. Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001.

Estrella, Espie. "History of Christmas Carols," About.com: Music Education, accessed 11 November 2009.

Grant, George, & Wilbur, Gregory. Christmas Spirit: The Joyous Stories, Carols, Feasts, and Traditions of the Season, New York: Gramercy Books, 1999.

Mikkelson, Barbara & David P. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Snopes.com: Rumor Has It, 18 December 2004, accessed 11 November 2009.

Poston, Elizabeth. The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. London: Penguin, 1965.

Studwell, William. The Christmas Carol Reader, New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.

Wikipedia. "Good King Wenceslas," accessed 11 November 2009.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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