Christmas Past: Good King Wenceslas

Writing about the hymn Good King Wenceslas for the Orkney Herald and Advertiser in 1948, the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown revealed the Orkney connection.

“It is not often realised by Orcadians how closely this lovely song touches us, for it was composed by a prolific hymn writer of the 19th century J.M.Neale; and J M Neale is the grandfather of our present Lord Lieutenant, Mr Patrick Neale Sutherland-Graeme.

“Good King Wenceslas” has had a chequered career. Its tune was first sung as a spring time carol. James Mason Neale by writing the words “Good King Wenceslas” linked it indissolubly with the Christmas season. These same words have been hotly criticised. A gentleman called K Duncan called the poem ‘doggerel’. Another carol expert Bullen said it was ‘poor and commonplace to the last degree’. The editor of ‘The Oxford Book of Carols’ naively hopes that in time the words will be forgotten.

Foolish men! For in a matter like this the popular mind and the popular imagination is the sole arbiter. For many decades now the millions of people who rejoice at Christmas time have taken ‘Good King Wenceslas’ to their hearts.

It is not likely ever to be forgotten, for it is now firmly rooted in the popular mind and throws out its lovely blossoms once every year. It tells too of universal things: of men comfortably off who make humble pilgrimages ; of the divine love, shining more brightly in contrast, to the surrounding coldness and darkness of nature, and working through human hearts.

And as such it will endure.”

G.M.B (December 21 1948, The Orkney Herald and Advertiser)

“King Wenceslas”. Made by Hudson, Scott & Sons for Huntley & Palmers, 1913. Victoria and Albert Museum no. M.367-1983. via Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0