HYMN 281 Good King Wenceslaus/Twelve Days of Christmas
John Mason Neale (1814-1866) Tune: Piae Cantiones 1582 (Book of Medieval songs)
1. Good King Wenceslas look’d out, On the Feast of Stephen;
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.
2. “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.”
3. “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;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
And the bitter weather.
4.“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now 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.”
4. 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.
MEDITATION We are in the favorite week of many—the time between Christmas and New Year. This is the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day is big in English countries. The Norwegians call it Romjul, a time for the old custom of julebukking, parties, rest and relaxation, shopping, exchanging presents, traveling, whatever. (I have included Alf Prøysen's popular song on the holiday, but no translation, in the links below.)
My mother loved Second Day Christmas. She would be quiet, exhausted from the intense work of preparing for the Christmas celebrations. Often she would make a smaller version of the Christmas Eve feast of spareribs, mashed potatoes, rutabagas, lutefisk, lefse, julekaka, sweetsoup, and dessert which for her was mincemeat pie, a sort of coup de grâce of richness.
Christmas Day would be church—the Norwegian tradition had always celebrated Christmas Eve at home—we went to church on Christmas Day—and then a big turkey dinner with all the American trimmings. How my mother got that ready, after the night before when we sat up late with family telling stories, I do not know. But she did.
So today is a great down time. Napping, eating leftovers, enjoying one’s memories, family, and music.
The church, however, goes right on with its celebrations. Today is the day it remembers the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first martyr for the church, if you remember. (See Acts 7.) He was elected Deacon by the early church when the apostles said they could not feed everybody and continue preaching and evangelizing. They needed help. So a number of Deacons were elected to care for people, Stephen among them. He became one whom Saul/Paul persecuted before his conversion.
As he was being stoned, he preached the longest sermon in Acts. At the end he sees Jesus on the right hand of God and dies confident of his salvation.
Stephen, a deacon, was responsible for helping the poor. The very popular hymn we sing on this day, Good King Wenceslaus (911-935), Duke of Bohemia, took seriously the helping of the poor. This hymn tells his story. He became known as the righteous king about whom many such stories were told.
I always regret how the music of Christmas on the radio stops Christmas Day at midnight and returns to regular music. The church celebrates Christmas at least until Epiphany if not until Candelmas, the Presentation, on February 2. As I will do on these blogs.
These days of quiet and celebration, before the New Year’s parties, can be a time to reflect on the great gift we have received in Christ Jesus, returning to the Biblical readings, the music and our obligations to help others. Now may be a good time to sink into the good news in the accounts of the birth of Jesus. Mary pondered all these things in her heart. That is a good thing to do just now especially.
The story goes that John Mason Neale and a collaborator Thomas Helmore wrote this in 1853 from a piece Neale had written some years before. He had just received a copy of medieval songs, Piae Cantiones, a book of medieval texts and tunes that had been recently discovered in Finland. They used a tune from the book which was associated with Easter. Neale, eager to bring ancient feast days and rites back into the church of England, loved the idea of using both a song from that book and the story of the old saint. It was published the same year in a book Carols of Christmas Tide. It became popular, but those who had a strong prejudice, even revulsion, for the hymns of the Victorian era, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, hoped for its demise. It has not faded, maybe for its story, and the reminder that in the middle of this receiving, we also are called to give to the poor.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Jane Seymour telling the story a bit longer https://youtu.be/low_UI9zUfk
Irish Rovers https://youtu.be/bMmxhhfQw0c
The Twelve Days of Christmas/Some think it is a parody of a Catechism hymn or a secret kind of catechism in which the gifts stood for some events in the Christian story
Alf Prøysen Romjuldrøm