Monday, December 26, 2016

Good King Wenceslaus

Today is St. Stephen's Day!

At least, in Ireland it's St. Stephen's Day. In the UK, it's Boxing Day, an appellation the Irish have always considered barbarous. (At least, as long as I've been alive.) 

Last year, I had an amusing encounter with an old lady in the porch of our local church. She was fuming because the roster for extraordinary Eucharistic ministers had the 26th of December listed as Boxing Day. (One of our priests is Nigerian. I think this explains it.) She asked me if it was unreasonable for her to be so upset. Since it seemed like a rhetorical question, I said I understood it but I didn't think any offence was intended.

I told my father the story, expecting him to be amused. But he was also highly indignant. So, anyone from Commonwealth countries who comes to careful of the nomenclature you use for this day!

Of course, the day is associated with a Chritmas carol whose quatrain is far more famous than the rest of it (indeed, I think I read the rest of the lyrics for the first time just now):

Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the feast of Stephen
While the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even...

(Yes, I've heard the joke about the pizza topping. Everybody has. I am just warding off any potential comment on that score.)

 I don't know if I've ever heard this song actually sung, in real life. I know it mostly from references, many of them tongue-in-cheek.

This would explain several misconceptions I had until very recently. I assumed King Wenceslaus was a medieval English king, like Canute and Harold. Actually he was a Duke of Bohemia (that exotic-sounding obsolete country which always makes me think of creamed rice), who was posthumously made a King and a saint.

I also assumed the song was set during the day-- maybe because I thought of St. Stephen's Day as quintessentially "the morning after the night before". I always envisaged the gleam of snow under morning sunlight, though the song specifies that it is gleaming under moonlight. (The actual story of the song is that King Wenceslaus and his attendant go out to give charity to a poor man, that the attendant can barely make it through the snow and suggests turning back, but that King Wenceslaus tells him to follow in his footsteps which are miraculously warm and navigable.)

Even though I only ever knew the first four lines,  I've always found them deliciously evocative.

First of all, there's the snow. I've always loved snow.

Then there is the cultural and historical atmosphere it evokes. I may enjoy swimming against the tide and being a contrarian, but-- like every Christian, perhaps-- I am not without an intense nostalgia for Christendom, a time when Christianity itself was "deep and crisp and even" all over the Christian world.

This especially applies to England, which was already thoroughly secularised by the time I was a child. Realising it had once been ardently Christian was always a shock, like seeing a photograph of your grandfather as a boy.

Even before I'd heard the term "Merry England", I recognised its atmosphere. (The first non-picture book I ever read  was Robin Hood and his Merry Men.) Perhaps the best evocation of 'Merry England' I've ever read is the refrain of the medieval drinking song I've quoted on this blog before:

Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale,
For our blessed Lady's sake, bring us in good ale!

I cannot omit another quotation I've frequently reproduced here, and which I reproduce again now, without apologies. It is Chesterton writing about Dickens:

Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. 

But "Good King Wenceslaus's" opening four lines did the trick for me as well. It seems to call up a whole world of bells, spires, pilgrims, market crosses, ale, friars, petty kings, coronations, inns, coats of arms, and so forth. The atmosphere of Merry England, for me, was always one of piety and child-like gusto intermingled.

The very title of the ballad gratifies my sentimental attachment to both monarchy and democracy. I'm convinced that some kind of democracy has existed almost everywhere and always, whether or not the people had votes. How often in history books do we come across sentences similar to that in the Gospel: "But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, for they took him for a prophet"?

In the figure of a "good king" (or queen), a figure beloved by the populace, we have a perfect union of hierarchy and populism, one which shows that they are not necessarily at odds. (I realise now that Wenceslaus was 'good' because he was saintly; but I always took it to mean that the people loved him and he was a folk hero, both of which were in fact the case.)

The reference to 'the feast of Stephen' pleased me. I've always believed that measuring and marking should be done in homely rather than scientific terms. Decimelisation and the metric system were awful innovations. One of the most pleasing aspects of Christendom was its division of the year into feasts and solemnities.

(I use saints' days as titles for my diary entries, in the Penzu diary I've kept since June 2015. One might assume there are so many saints that every day of the year has a notable saint. This is far from being the case. Although there are several saints commemorated on every day, quite often they are obscure saints I've never heard of. But there is something pleasing in this, too.) 

Another thing that appealed to me in this quatrain was the aura of folklore. I guessed King Wenceslaus was a semi-historical figure seen through the mist of legend and anecdote, which I always found an exciting perspective, and still do.

I've just realised a final reason the quatrain appealed to me so much. I thought "King Wenceslaus" was the name of an English medieval king. It didn't seem too strange that it was such an exotic name, since medieval English history is full of strange names like Cynweful and Cnut. And this itself seemed symbolic of 'the exoticism of the ordinary', which has always enthralled me. Our own national history (English, Irish, or any other) is exotic, when we dig deep into it. Come to think of it, our own famiy history is exotic-- our own souls and minds and bodies are exotic. This is the exact sensation (both pleasant and disorientating) that I experience when I read or speak the Irish language. It's a strange language-- but it's more my language than the one I'm writing now. I've always felt a passionate conviction that the wildest, widest horizons are not distant but very near.

(I think this explains why the image of Lucy going through the wardrobe into Narnia has such an abiding power over the collective imagination. It also explains why I love the horror genre so much. Horror is full of strange, terrifying and haunting worlds which are only a footstep away.)

So much for the song. One last thing about this day. In the Irish language, it is known as 'The Day of the Wren', since it was the day 'Wren Boys' (children dressed in outlandish garb) would go from door to door singing:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

It's not a tradition I've ever witnessed myself. It only survives in some parts of the country. I hope it continues to do so for generations to come. Is it too much to hope it might enjoy a revival?


  1. Hi M,
    Merry Christmas and happy New Year!
    Don't like the term 'boxing day' particularly - seems too much like a a forced attempt to de-Christianise the day. I know it isn't really the case, but in an era where people are prone to go with happy holidays rather than merry Christmas for fear of offending someone, it irks.
    Regarding hunting the wren, I did it as a lad in North Cork, maybe 45 years ago or so. We called it 'hunting the wran' - who knows why! I think it still exists in some rural parts ... but I couldn't say where. Re-popularising the custom seems like a delightful idea, especially as it would drag people from watching the generally woeful 'boxing day' offerings on the British channels!

  2. Happy Christmas to you too!

    I've heard since writing this that Wren boys are actually making a comeback, which I find very heartening news indeed.

  3. Boxing day does actually have religious (Anglican) connotations , the"boxes"being donations collected during advent for the poor etc. Of course that was St Stephens original job, it short of ties in

    1. We once had a guest speaker from Ghana, in school, who told us that on Boxing Day in Ghana you were allowd to box anyone you want. I assume he was pulling our legs.

      Boxing Day is OK in itself but I think Irish people get so worked up because they like to emphasise their differences from Britain.