In the churches where I served as the minister, it was one of my Advent delights to tell stories to the children during “Children’s Moments”. This is one of those stories told to last throughout the advent season.
There was a King. A very good king. He was born more than a 1000 years ago in a country called Bohemia. He lived such a good life, that he became the patron saint of Czechoslovakia. He earned the name Good King Wenceslaus because of his great kindness.
There is one story that we sing about him even a thousand years later. Do you know what it is?
Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Do you know when the Feast of Stephen is? It is the day after Christmas. It is what we call Boxing Day.
Let me tell you the story of that day. King Wenceslaus has had a wonderful Christmas celebration with all his friends in Court. There had been lots to eat and drink. There had been wonderful presents for everyone. And there were warm fires burning in every fireplace in every room. That was really important, because that year the winter had turned terribly cold. The Alberta Clipper had reached all the way to Europe and it was freezing worse than any year in memory. Everyone that could was huddled by the fire drinking hot apple cider.
As the clock struck midnight, and the party was just about to end and everyone was ready to go to bed, the King looked out of his palace window. And he saw something moving in the moonlight. He looked more closely, and he saw a man, dressed in rags, looking very, very skinny, scrounging around beneath the trees in the King’s garden, picking up twigs that had fallen from the trees.
Well I must end the story here, and pick it up next week when I tell you what the King did to that scrounger.
Last week we looked at a good King. What was his name? Right! Good King Wenceslaus. He saw something under the trees in his garden? What did he see? A scrounger picking up twigs.
Well when the King saw the poor man picking up twigs, he called out to a young boy standing near the fire side. Here pageboy. Come stand by me. Now this young man was a very interesting boy. He had entered the King’s court just a few months before. He had come from a poor family, but now he was part of a rich King’s house, and he loved the good food, and the warm fire, and the handsome clothes. He was having the time of his life.
But this boy had not grown better in the King’s court; he had grown worse. When he was at the home of his parents, he had been a good boy. So good that the village had noticed how pleasant he was. His reputation had come to the attention of the King, and he had invited him to the court to be one of his helpers. But when he had been clothed in a fine suit, and had good food for every meal, he began to despise the poor village from where he had come. He acted snooty to the poor boys of the village, and even acted ignorantly towards his poor parents and his two sisters. He was turning into a nasty little boy.
But the king thought that the young lad would know the names of the poor villagers so he called him over. “Do you know that poor man’s name? Do you know where he lives, and what kind of house he lives in?”
The young page could sense the concern in the King’s question. He knew his master was a bit soft hearted. “O master, he’s just a poor man, just another of the many poor folk. He lives three miles away, right at the foot of the mountain, quite close to the edge of the forest by St. Agnes Fountain. That really is a long way away. Too far for anyone to go out, especially in weather like this.”
And the page kept his fingers crossed behind his back, hoping the King would just say “That’s too bad. If he lived nearer, we could have helped him. But in bad weather like this, what can you do. Let’s get back to the fire.” But do you think the King said that?
Let’s see next week what the king said to his page boy.
Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the poor man picking up twigs from under the trees. He looked down at the pageboy standing beside him. He looked up at the sky with its snow still swirling, and the wind blowing furiously. He looked back at the poor man who could find so few sticks on the snow covered ground. And then the king straightened his shoulders. He spoke to the young boy by his side.
“Bring some food. Bring something warm to drink. Get some pine logs. We are going to see that man have a good square meal and a good warm fire before this night is over!”
The page boy flinched when he heard those words. Now he had to do some running around finding stuff instead of sitting by the fire. His master the King was going to go out into that cold. On a night fit for neither man nor beast, the King was going to make a trip in the middle of a blizzard. “Oh well,” he thought “I might just as well go and pack some provisions.” He went off to bring some of the food left over from that evening’s banquet. He picked up some small logs, and bundled them into a sack. Then he brought them to the King. The King was all bundled up in a thick winter coat, with his heavy boots on and a thick wooden staff in his hand. He was ready to go.
Then the King spoke. “Where’s your coat and scarf? Where’s your winter boots? The young pageboy stopped in his tracks. “Oh no. He wants me to go too. It’s not fair. Its Christmas. It’s warm in here. It’s so cold out there. It’s not fair.” But the king stood there waiting, looking quizzically at the boy. The page boy got the point. He was going, like it or not. So he went for his winter clothes, and in 5 minutes was back beside the King.
The king reached down and picked up the sack of pine logs. He slung the sack over his shoulder. He looked just like Santa Claus with a big bag of toys on his back. Then he said to the page boy, “You can carry the food.” “Oh no!” He not only had to go out in the cold, but he had to carry a bag to boot. He slung the bag of food reluctantly on to his back, and then he wished he had not put so much food in it. But they were ready.
The King opened the great front door to the palace, and the wind and snow just came pouring in. King and page boy stepped out into the storm and quickly closed the door behind them. Then the King said, “Well son, let’s go for it,” and together side by side the king and the page boy, with heads down, stepped into the storm, with the cruel wind howling in their ears and the cold starting to find its way through their winter clothes. And as they walked the snow seemed to get deeper; the wind seemed to get stronger; the night seemed to get darker; and the cold was getting more bitter. After a while the young page boy said to himself, “I’m not going to make it! I don’t think I can go on any further!” And he slumped down on his knees. He could go no further.
Last week we left the little page boy slumped down, up to his ears in a snow bank. He had joined Good King Wenceslas in a trip to help a poor man, who had neither food nor fire. But the blizzard was cruel. The wind was harsh, the snow was deep and the poor page boy was frozen cold. He just knew he could go no further. He was a goner! He slipped a bit deeper into the snowdrift. He tried to call out for help, but the snow was in his mouth. He could hardly catch his breath. The King was now way ahead of him, or so he thought.
But, just when he thought he was lost forever in the deepening drift, he felt two strong hands under his arms lifting him out of the snow bank. The King asked him “Hey, are you OK.?” He wasn’t OK. He was just about finished. He caught his breath and said “Oh Sir, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger. I’m scared. I don’t know how I can go on any longer.”
The King looked on his young friend with real concern. He really liked the young boy, and didn’t want him coming to any harm. He said, “I’ve got an idea. You see my big boots. They’ll help us.” “Oh sir, I could never walk in your big boots. They’d never fit.” The King laughed at the idea. “Oh no. You are right. You’d never fit in them. Here’s the idea. You walk right behind me. My big body will shield you from the cold wind. Then you step into the big boot prints that I leave behind, and that way you won’t have to step into the deep snow. Then grab a hold of the back of my coat and we’ll be there is no time.”
So the page boy decided to give it one more try. He stepped behind the King, and he noticed the difference right away. He couldn’t feel the wind the same way he had before. Because he didn’t have to look into the snow through scrunched up eyes, the night did not seem so dark after all. And he noticed something else. When he stepped into the big boot prints, the trampled down snow actually seemed warm. Pretty soon the night was not as bitter and his feet were not as cold. Before he knew it, they had stopped at the door of a little cottage. The King knocked on the door of the darkened house.
Do you know what happened next? Let’s see next week what lay beyond that closed door.
The story of Good King Wenceslas and his page boy has been told over the past few weeks. Now we return to the moment when the King and his page boy stood before the darkened cottage. They have made their way through the blizzard carrying sacks with logs and food. They are covered with snow as they stand there in the moonlight. They look like two snowmen; one big and one little.
But it looks like there is no one home. Everything is in darkness. But the King steps up to the front door and knocks. Not real loud so as to frighten anyone, but clear enough so that if anyone was inside, the knock could be heard. Then they hear a sound, and the door opens just a crack, and one eye and a nose peeks through the slit. The King speaks, “My good man, we have brought you Christmas Dinner! Can we bring it in.” The door opens a bit wider. The man who had been picking up sticks is standing before them. “Who are you?” he asks the snow covered couple that stand near his door. The King starts to laugh. He bangs his feet on the boards of the front porch, and the snow falls off his beard and his coat. He flings back the hood on his head, and says, “I am the king. This is my friend the page boy. We want to help you. We’ve brought you something for Christmas.”
The startled man opens the door a bit wider, and then the page boy sees into the simple room. There is a woman and three children gathered around a little candle trying to keep warm against the bitter cold. They looked tired and hungry, and now they look scared. The king stood outside the door still. He asked the man, “May we come in?” The man said a quavering “yes”, and his family backed away into the darkness just a bit more, afraid. The page boy, stomped his feet too. The snow fell off him, and he stepped into the little cottage and closed the door against the howling wind.
In a few minutes the King explained what they had seen earlier, when the man had been picking up sticks. “We have come with some good food, and warm drink and something to make a roaring fire.” And it was not long before there was fire in the fireplace, making everybody there as warm as toast. Soon the family was sitting at their table with the King and his page boy. Guess what was on the table to eat? Turkey, Dressing, Mashed Potatoes, gravy, and your favourite vegetables. And a hot apple pie to top it off!
As the page boy sat there, he looked at the three other children just wolfing down the food with such happy looks upon their faces, and he just knew that this was the very best Christmas that he had ever had in his life.
In the years that followed, the Page boy grew into a man, a very important man in that kingdom. But every year about this time, he remembered the Christmas when he was a page boy. And every Christmas after that, he would make a trip with his friends to carry food and Christmas gifts to all the boys and girls in the land.
He found out that Christmas Day, that a Christmas shared, is the best of all Christmases!
The Song of Good King Wenceslaus
Good King Wenceslaus 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
Gathering winter fuel.
“Hither page, and stand by me
If thou knowst 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 St. 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
Through 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 my good 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 yourself find blessing.