My daughter and I finished trimming the Christmas Tree this evening (it has been for me a project compassing four days). We sang carols as we worked. This is our perennial tradition. At the verge of thirty, she cannot bear to welcome Christmas without it. For, she is a creature and evangel of tradition, our family’s chief enforcer of the rubric of those sacred familiar rites that began before time – her time, anyway. And the rite cannot be completed until, hanging angels and apples and stars as we sing, we finish together Good King Wenceslas. She sings the part of the page, I the part of the Saintly King. In the verses where the Poet is speaking – “page and monarch forth they went, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament, and the bitter weather” – we sing together, she on the treble, I the alto.
It is a soft, humble, earthy poem: bread, wine, pine logs – the stuff of the Eucharist, and of the ever burning evergreen Tree of the Passion of that High King to whom King Wenceslas had pledged his own pure, total, deathless fealty.
And then there is in the carol outside the castle the snow of my own childhood – deep and crisp and even, under the impossibly brilliant stars I remember so well, coming out of the Cathedral after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, just warm enough in my woolen cassock against the freezing cold, munching the crunchy apple given me by my father at the vestibule, a wild grin on his face as, covered in his golden vestments, he handed out the fruit of Paradise to each of his departing joyful flock, their hopes again all consummated in and by that evening of all things, and Eden for them again a welcome homely hearth, warm and comfortable against the lively urgent freeze of the outer darkness.
Aye, the magic is thick sometimes, as thick as honey.
How I wish, whenever my wee girl and I sing of Wenceslas together this way, that I were a Saint like him. For, then, I should be like him too a worthy King. As it is, I am indeed true king of my little house, and fitly honored by all that are in it. But I am through my own fault not as good for them a king as I might be. And when I sing that carol with my daughter, how, oh how I wish I were as good a king for her and her brothers, aye and for their mother, as Saint Wenceslas was for the peasant who lived by Saint Agnes’ fountain, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence – and for all his other subjects.
Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now would bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
How I long for that blessing. For the strong to protect the small and the weak: that just is the blessing proper to men. It is the royal fulfillment of every knight’s ordination to his holy order. It is at once the acme and beginning of true manhood.
I am like all mere men at last no more than mere. I cannot be a true and righteous king except I give utter fealty to my High King, as Wenceslas did. No more then may any other man.
Are we not men? Aye. Are we then but men? Aye, and amen.
So therefore God send us grace, to send ourselves vassals to him, who rules all things. That shall make us men in full, at the least; heroes, and so too petty gods. Then, by God, let’s have some of those apples, after all, and sit and warm ourselves companion by that Everlasting Fire, in the light of that Tree that stands ever in the midst of the Garden, throbbing with glory and radiant with shining angels.
We can wait there together happily for our King.