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Good King Wenceslas
"Good King Wenceslas" tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinized version of the old Czech language "Venceslav".
Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death in the 10th century, when a cult of Wenceslas rose up in Bohemia and in England. Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II, who himself also walked ten miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.
Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962–973) posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a "king".
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, although he may have written his carol some time earlier, since he carried on the legend of St Wenceslas (the basis of this story) in his Deeds of Faith (1849), and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published by Novello & Co in 1853.
Neale's lyrics were set to the melody of 13th-century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones. Piae Cantiones is a collection of seventy-four songs compiled by Jacobus Finno, the Protestant headmaster of Turku Cathedral School, and published by Theodoric Petri, a young Catholic printer. The book is a unique document of European songs intended not only for use in church, but also schools, thus making the collection a unique record of the late medieval period.
Lyrics by John Mason Neale