Back in 2008, the topic of my Christmas column was the song, Good King Wenceslas. Since its original publication, I’ve only become more fond of the familiar refrain. I’ve collected many versions of the tune, everyone from Mel Tormé — the best version — to the Beatles and REM.

Back in 2008, the topic of my Christmas column was the song, Good King Wenceslas. Since its original publication, I’ve only become more fond of the familiar refrain. I’ve collected many versions of the tune, everyone from Mel Tormé — the best version — to the Beatles and REM.


I feel that it perfectly captures the generosity of the season. With that in mind, I’m presenting the original column again this year, with a few updates.


The story behind the song comes from the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda writing in 1847. The poem was written in Czech, German and Latin, and was called ‘Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin’ — Saint Wenceslas and the Crocheteer. A few decades later it found its way to England, where in 1853 J.M. Neale set it to the 13th century spring carol ‘Tempus Adest Floridum’ (‘It is time for flowering’). The tune itself was a transplant from Scandinavia.


The song begins, "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen." The Feast of St. Stephen, named for the first Christian martyr, coincides in the modern era with Boxing Day, a secular holiday in the Anglicized world. Neither an homage to "the sweet science" nor to leftover Christmas present packaging, Boxing Day, celebrated on Dec. 26, is when the more affluent give to the less fortunate.


The next lines of the song are, "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."


So, here we have a peasant picking up scraps of wood to burn whilst a nobleman and his servant watch. The noble is intrigued, "Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know’st it, telling. Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"


The servant answers, "Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain. Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain" — St. Agnes of Bohemia was Wenceslas’ sister who forsook marriage to a king in preference to life as a nun. Instead of holding court, she nursed lepers and fed the poor. As you’ll see, this charity runs in the family.


Moved by the wretch gathering woody scraps three miles (a league) from his house, Wenceslas instructs his servant, "Bring me flesh and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine when we bear him thither." The pair set out across the snow to help, "Page and monarch forth they went. Forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather."


Partway there, the servant begins to freeze, "Sire, the night is darker now and the wind blows stronger. Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer." The nobleman comforts him, "Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly."


In the last quatrain, we get the broader message, "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."


While the story is likely apocryphal, Wenceslas was very real and quite benevolent. Unfortunately, his pagan brother and mother just couldn’t abide his goodness. They conspired to have him murdered. He was stabbed to death by three assassins.


Back in 2008, I ended the column with an admonishment to take up Wenceslas’ charity. Maybe we don’t have to walk miles in the freezing snow to help, but we could drive some food over to a needy family, or make a donation to the local Humane Society. While it’s cold outside, it need not be so in our hearts.


As we bask in the glow of the holidays, the family, the friends and the blessings we all have, it is equally important we remember those to whom a little help would mean everything. Moreover, a small act of kindness might provide your own greatest blessing.


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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com