Some like the gentleness of Silent Night, other the haunting spirituality of The Huron Carol, still others the exultation in Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful. For me, the ultimate Christmas carol – the monarch, the shining star, the sum of all things Christmas – is Good King Wenceslas. I sing it every year at this time and the season wouldn't be the same without it.
For more than four decades, my family on my mother's side has been gathering at Aunt Joan Anne's place to sing carols from the Simpson's song sheet. Simpson's is long gone, but "the carol party" endures, a small miracle in transient times.
My maternal grandmother had four children: two boys, two girls. Among them they had 12 children. Remarkably, when so many families are scattered across the continent or the globe, 10 of the 12 still live in Toronto, where we grew up. Now their children come, too. When Aunt Jo died this summer, we soldiered on, as she would have wanted.
This year's gathering featured a six-month-old girl along with three octogenarian aunts and uncles.
We aren't a very musical family. Often as not, we start too low, making even Joy to the World sound like a dirge; or too high, making voices disappear into reedy squeaks as we hit "Christ, the Saviour, is born."
We aren't very Christian, either. Our gathering includes Christopher Hitchens-style atheists, indifferent teenagers and several Jews. One aunt who married into the family gamely sings along as we proclaim Jesus "Lord of all." After she took over hosting Christmas dinner from my grandmother, we dubbed her The Jew Who Saved Christmas.
Despite our musical failings, despite our general lack of piety, raising our voices together in song never fails to lift the heart. There is joy and meaning in those corny carols, with all their thee and thous and their puzzling apostrophes (Why "heav'nly"? And how come glory "giv'n"?)
To me, none carries more joy and meaning than Good King Wenceslas. The carol was written by English churchman John Mason Neale and published in a book of carols in 1853. He borrowed the tune from a 13th-century dance song, Tempus adest floridum, celebrating the return of spring. Onto it he fused the story of King Wenceslas, who, as it happens, was not a king but the Duke of Bohemia, Vaclav the Good (Vaclav is Czech for Wenceslas). He was known for his devotion to the poor and his zeal for spreading Christianity. After he was murdered by his envious pagan brother, Boleslav the not so good, in 929, his legend grew and carried down the ages.
Critics have not always been kind to Neale's creation. According the website The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, one scholar said the lyrics are "quite honestly, on the horrible side." Another called them "doggerel." Yet another, writing in the 1960s, said that in feeling, the tune was "entirely pagan" and could easily serve for dancing the twist.
The experts are all wet. Wenceslas is not only a great carol, but the greatest carol of all, for a few simple reasons.
The first is the compelling story it tells. Like the best work of Bruce Springsteen, King Wenceslas is story-song. It draws you in with word pictures. You see the ragged poor man come in sight, gathering winter fu-uuu-el. You see the king and page go out in the storm to bring him a Christmas feast. You see the page faltering in the cold, then reviving when he follows his master's footsteps, because – my favourite line – "Heat was in the very sod/Which the saint had printed."
Oh, I know, it's all mumbo-jumbo. Neale made the whole thing up, poor man and all. But that image of the page stepping in the king's footprints is the most vivid, for me, in any Christmas carol. It settled in my mind when I was a boy and comes swimming back every Christmas.
The second reason to love King Wenceslas is the language. I love the language in other carols, too. "Glories stream from heaven afar"; "All is calm, all is bright"; "Repeat the sounding joy." But what Canadian can resist "when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even" or "through the rude wind's wild lament." When the page says, "Fails my heart, I know not how/I can go no longer," we feel his despair. Why "fails my heart" and not "my heart fails"? Somehow it just catches the spirit of the thing, much as Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" catches the spirit of early revolutionary France better than "it was bliss to be alive in that dawn."
The third reason to love King Wenceslas is the way Neale divides it into three singing parts: for king, page and chorus. Proper choirs often have soloists do the king and page, a deep voice for the one, a high one for the other. In our family, we divide it down the middle of the room, with one side doing king, the other page and the whole crowd the chorus. We used to do men and boys as king, women and girls as page, but some time in the 1970s, an aunt or cousin (no one can remember for sure) raised a feminist objection. We've divided the room ever since. The dividing is fun – where to draw the line? – and so is the back-and-forth singing. Not only are we singing with each other, we are singing to each other.
The final reason to love King Wenceslas is the message. Now, there is nothing very new or profound in that standard Christian notion: "Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing." A cynic would insist that it is just a way of saying to the stingy rich: Shell out, or you won't make it past those gates. A more generous interpretation is that giving is its own reward, that helping the poor not only, well, helps them, but enriches the giver, too.
The giver, in this case, is a monarch and the story has a distinctly feudal cast: poor peasant, lowly page, noble monarch. But, even in our democratic time, the idea of the good leader – generous, honest, strong – strikes a chord. What voter, somewhere in his heart, doesn't want a leader to say: "Mark my footsteps ... tread thou in them boldly?" Who among us wouldn't follow such a man into the storm?
A great tune, a great story, great words, a great moral – in the land of the Christmas carol, Wenceslas is king of them all.