by Dan Jones
Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a little bit of, shall we say, "an odd duck."
I do enjoy things just a wee bit obtuse. Odd bits of trivia tend to pique my interest and I have been known to fixate on them for hours, days, and yes, even years.
So it is with my habit of giving the gift of meat at Christmas.
Some of my dearly loved family members (you know who you are) think it strange, even eccentric, that when a Christmas party comes along where we are to exchange $5 or $10 gifts, I have no problem making a decision on what to buy for such a festivity and will eagerly and with great joy purchase a steak from a favorite purveyor of said beef-based happiness.
Now, while some of you may recoil at the thought of a pound of flesh (or slightly less, given current prices) as a gift celebrating the birth of our Savior, I would like to point out that the recipient of said gift is often quite pleased with such a thoughtful and savory beneficence.
Once, when my family decided a Christmas gift exchange needed a theme and chose "My Favorite Game" as that theme, I participated by giving an enormous quantity of beef, bacon, and fowl under the guise that my favorite game was indeed, "Meat Raffle."
And yes, I did chuckle a tiny bit maniacally when I devised the carnivorous caper.
What makes the whole "gift of meat" a personal tradition and even more appealing to me is its connection to an obscure bit of trivia, hidden deep in the recesses of an ancient Christmas Carol.
The song "Good King Wenceslas" has its origins in the 10th century when a king by that name really did exist in Bohemia and was known far and wide as a very good king.
In fact, a cult sprang up around him in his native land and also in England shortly after his death that centered on a righteous king whose power stems from his great piety and princely vigor.
The song about Good King Wenceslas didn't come about until 1853 (about 900 years after his death) and was written by John Mason Neale, an English hymn-writer. The music used was from a 13th century song about spring time. While there is no indication that the events in the song ever actually took place, they are in keeping with the character and spirit of this legendary king.
The song is a ballad which begins with the good king looking out on The Feast of Steven, which was held on the day after Christmas and was a celebration of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. (See Act's 7)
As the song begins, it is a cold winter night, the frost is described as "cruel," and "the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even." As Wenceslas is looking out, a poor man comes into sight, "gathering winter fuel." (Picking up sticks and twigs for fire wood.)
After the initial stanza, the song then alternates stanzas between the king speaking to his page and the page replying to the king. (A page was typically a young boy between the ages of seven and 14 who was in training to become a squire and, eventually, perhaps a knight. This "training" consisted primarily of being a servant to a noble of some sort.)
In the second stanza, Good King Wenceslas asks his page who this poor man is and where he lives. The page replies that the man lives "a good league hence" (about three miles) "underneath the mountain" and "right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain." (This apparently means the peasant lived at the base of the mountain, right where the tree line began. Saint Agnes was a Bohemian princess known for charity, a denial of fleshly pleasures, and a rejection of luxury and comfort.)
And it is then that Good King Wenceslas says to his page, "Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither."
As the song goes on, the two venture forth through the bitter cold and wind of the night. At one point, the night grows darker, colder, and the wind blows stronger. The young page complains that his heart is failing him and he can go no longer.
The king replies that the page should walk behind him, following in his footsteps, treading in them boldly. If he will do so, "Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."
The song continues, "In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Heat was in the very sod, which the saint had printed."
Those stanzas are an obvious allegory for following in Jesus' footsteps and are an encouragement that when it seems that it's just us against the cold, cruel world, we will find the life-sustaining strength and warmth to go on from those very footsteps if we will just walk in them.
As it turns out, the story of the "Righteous Good King Wenceslas" is, in fact, an allegory for the true Righteous Good King Jesus.
It may seem odd to us that the song does not conclude with the two reaching the poor man, but it doesn't have to, as it is assumed this took place.
The final stanza assures us that if we bless the poor we will find that we are blessed by doing so.
And so, if you find yourself in possession of a steak at a gift-exchange where I am present, know that while it may seem odd, even a bit eccentric, it come from the sod on which I have trod.
Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.
Deuteronomy 15:10 NLT