Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
Wenceslaus. It is very strange and mysterious how one word can call up a thousand images…a whole story. My friend Grace came over for supper one night last October and she told me about her stay in Prague; the beautiful old medieval city, full of music. Then she saw the castle of King Wenceslaus, built on a high cliff overlooking the river Vltava.
I have not told Grace this, but as soon as she mentioned Wenceslaus I was eight years old again, trudging through the snow that lay “deep and crisp and even”, my head bent down against the bitter north wind that drove itself down Claremont Avenue. There was no snow blanketing the Winnipeg world as Grace and I sat and talked over supper, yet in the space of a second, a winter scene was unfolding itself from the recesses of my memory.
December 1953. I was eight years old. Dad had died in November of that year and my mother, my brother and I were on our way to the movies for the second time that week. We were Catholic and my favourite part of Christmas every year was always Advent…the getting ready….pulling out the Christmas records, playing the carols and the hymns, practicing them for the school Christmas concert where Father Empson always sat large and encouraging in the front row.
But the winter of 1953 was different. After Dad died we went out a lot, and we always walked. Looking back now, I wonder if we didn’t have a car until my mother found work. In Norwood at that time, there were two movie theatres across the park at the end of our street, and two drugstores with lunch counters where you could buy milkshakes and sodas.
My brother and I didn’t question why we had to go out to the movies two or three times a week that winter. What normal eight or ten years old would? It was a dream come true! I remember the cold north wind blowing on our faces as we walked into it along Claremont Street to Coronation Park. Then across the park to Tache and Marion where the shows were. I remember walking beside my mother and crying because the wind cut into my face. She didn’t chide me. She simply said, “Walk in my footsteps. I’ll break the wind for you.”
Mom wore a thick, velvety black beaver coat and those black boots with fur at the top which came just above the ankle and tied in front. She strode along the snowy sidewalk like a large black bear. I walked along behind and the wind no longer bit into my face and cheeks.
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very steps which the saint had printed
Well who are the saints anyway? I had been taught at school that they started out as ordinary people who did something brave or kind. Wasn’t my mother both of these things? Brave to keep on living as normally as possible, keeping us cheerful and hopeful. Kind to take us to the show so often each week, feeding us along the way with milkshakes and sandwiches.
This was my song. It didn’t matter that there was no poor peasant to whom we were bringing food. I was that page, trudging through snow that was “deep and crisp and even”. The sandwiches my mother carried and the milkshake we stopped for was to feed us…poor starving trio without our dad. It didn’t matter that we were walking so purposefully not towards home, but away to the cold comfort of a movie house.
Who was King Wenceslaus? This is less clear. Perhaps Mom and Dad were both Wenceslaus. Dad was the Wenceslaus at the beginning, when he looks out of his castle window and sees someone walking through the bitter snow. After all, I had been assured that my father was in fact in Heaven and could have chosen this very moment to look down on us as we worked our way north on Claremont Avenue. Then the scene shifts with the ease only possible in the mind’s eye. My face is stinging with cold and now Wenceslaus is walking ahead of me, shielding me from the bitter weather with her own body.
The carol began its part in shaping the story of who I am even while I walked along on those far off winter nights and it continues to bring into sharp and instant focus that feeling of being at once without, and yet protected.