My single favorite Christmas album is an old cassette tape given to me years ago by the friend who goes by “Marquee Movies” on this blog. Back during the years when I was attending Shirone Lutheran Church in Japan, I would often teach during the day on Christmas Eve (Christmas is just a plain old workday in Japan), then drive the twenty or so miles from the university to the little Lutheran church. Now, normally that drive wouldn’t take long; but Christmas Eve is a strangely special time in Japan. For whatever reasons, the Eve (not the day itself) has become, in Japanese pop culture, a time when two things happen: 1.) young couples go on hugely lavish dates to magnificent hotels or the upmost upscale restaurants they (usually the guy) can possibly afford; it’s the one night of the year when money is expected to pour out of wallets like Niagara Falls. And 2.) husbands come straight home from work so that the family can have a fancy dinner together (which is supposed to include Kentucky Fried Chicken among all the other feast items — expensive sushi platters, wine, cheese, caviar, etc. ) — and for dessert, there’s Christmas cake.
Stores take orders for Christmas cakes months in advance. If you haven’t ordered yours well ahead of time and try to search for one on Christmas Eve Day, you may be out of luck — the shelves in bakeries, department stores, and ice-cream shops are looking pretty barren. The cake can be of any flavor; it’s generally decorated beautifully. The point is, it’s CAKE — it’s what MUST be eaten on Christmas Eve, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken. (My students were always shocked and greatly amused to learn that these customs did not come from the U.S.A., since they firmly believed they were doing what all Americans do on Christmas Eve.)
Anyway, my point is that city streets and the roads to the suburbs are gridlocked with traffic starting in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Cars creep along, bumper to bumper. So my twenty-mile trip to Shirone Lutheran Church could easily take three or four hours on Christmas Eve. Enter that wonderful tape Marquee Movies gave me! I would settle in, thinking the joyful thoughts of Christmas (church service and trombone-playing ahead, followed by a Christmas cake party at church, followed by a late-night feast with friends, followed by presents — and all in celebration of the birth of the Savior, Who provides a point to everything). I would settle into this long, long car ride. The car was a little island of warmth in the cold and dark. Sometimes snow would be falling outside, drifting large and soft and feathery into the bare rice fields. Sometimes the moon would be glimmering on the Shinano River, which paralleled my road. I would inch my way to church, immersed in the best Christmas music that Marquee Movies could assemble. And my favorite among the selections was a carol that had fascinated me since childhood:
“Good King Wenceslas.”
The funny thing about it is that it’s become a good, solid carol, firmly entrenched in the canon, but it doesn’t mention the Nativity. It seems to be associated with Christmas because the song’s story takes place on the feast day of St. Stephen, December 26th. If you’re willing to trust my Internet research, the tune is of Finnish origin, from the mid-1500s, and the text was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853.
Wenceslas was King of Bohemia in the 10th century — a martyred Catholic king, assassinated by his brother Boleslaw (whose name, I can’t help noticing, is just like “Coleslaw,” but with a “B”–it definitely sounds like Monty Python material). Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his saint’s day is September 28th.
Bear with me, and I’ll include the words for you here. I hope they’ll carry you back to your childhood, as they always do for me:
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
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
That gives me gooseflesh even now! Christmas carols just don’t get any better than that. I love it for the way it gives us a glimpse beyond the walls of this world. In the ancient stories and songs, Saints are essentially magical people. They can perform miraculous feats . . . banish dragons (Saint Columba sent the Loch Ness Monster packing!) . . . and in this case, melt the snow underfoot and warm up the ground for us poor little pages who stumble after them in awe. I know that sort of happening appears in many tales. It reminds me most recently of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; in that film, the Shishigami, the most sacred Wild creature/god of the forest, leaves hoof-prints in which flowers sprout up.
Back in our carol, I love the pure impulsive charity of this king who spies a wretched peasant and leaps out of the castle to go and help him. Sure, there’s a lot outside the borders of the song that cynics will be quick to note: what about all the other peasants out in the cold? And what about all the other cold nights of the year? Does the saintly king have a plan for improving the lot of his people, or is he just full of self-indulgent good cheer because it’s the feast of Stephen, and tomorrow it will be business as usual? “Pay your taxes, poor man!”
Clearly, the carol is focused elsewhere, showing us something better, something beyond our winter’s cold. It may not reference the Nativity, but there is Gospel here. I’m sure scholars have written about it more eloquently in the going-on two centuries that this carol has been around, but Wenceslas displays some Christ-like qualities here. He doesn’t send the army. He goes himself; the King becomes the bringer of help, down in the snow, out in the cold. He ministers to the one in need; he “fills the hungry with good things” by preparing a banquet, the best that there is. And more, he blesses and comforts those who serve him. “Walk in my footprints. I’ll press down the snow and I’ll heat the ground for you.” Why does Wenceslas choose to take only that page along on the mission? If they’re carrying food and firewood, wouldn’t a team of servants be in order? How about a carriage? How about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But Wenceslas chooses to make the trek with one faithful page. Interesting, huh? He doesn’t fault the page for his limitations, either — doesn’t mind that the page points out he’s about to collapse. Wenceslas simply says, “Come on. I’ll enable you to do this.”
My other favorite part of this carol is the explanation of where the peasant lives: a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain. That is evocative and atmospheric. It’s a Breughel or a Bosch painting. The peasant doesn’t live up on Route 8 across from the McDonald’s. This is a quieter, greener, greyer land, a country of shadows, dappled light, scudding clouds, and mystery.
I doubt it’s a very good thing in this kingdom to live “right against the forest fence” — on the doorstep of wolves, robbers, and evil spirits. The peasant lives there because he’s poor. (I had a discussion with a local friend about this on Monday: my interpretation is that there’s no man-made fence; “forest fence” means “the edge of the forest; the barrier that is the forest.” Do you agree with me? I grew up looking across the field at a “forest fence,” which seemed a green cliff, the boundary of another world.) The landscape is marked with such wondrous things as the fountains of saints — crosses and cairns, stones, pools, and boscages, each with its own legend.
What remains in this world of Wenceslas of Bohemia, in addition to a handful of facts in dusty tomes, is a song that is still played each year as the winter solstice approaches. The portrait that carol gives us is most likely anything but an accurate historical account; nevertheless, it preserves some enduring truths. Compassion is a quality to be sought after and practiced. We are empowered with a light and warmth that radiate from beyond this world; and in the best of our actions, we are in turn blessed.
That, and there’s a fantastically cool landscape of the imagination out there, hinted at in our old legends and songs, always ready to be tapped by the storytellers and celebrated by those who love them!
So that’s my Christmas carol story. A good discussion this month might be: What are your favorite Christmas songs, and why? Do you have any memories to share with appreciative listeners? — memories, perhaps, of great times spent listening to them, and/or what they meant to you? Any Christmas thoughts/stories/memories in general are most welcome!