“Good King Wenceslas” Gives Me an Uncanny Feeling. Ever Happen to You?

The holidays are approaching, and Christmas carols are beginning to play, and I again experience the eerie feeling that I experience every year, when I hear the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”  Here’s the song; here are the lyrics.

For reasons I’ve never fathomed, this carol affects me with uncanny strength. Every phrase, every note stirs me. My hair stands on end, tears prickle in my eyes. Why? I have no idea. This carol is of fairly recent vintage and apparently scoffed at by academics; doesn’t matter.

Sire, the night is darker now,

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart I not how,

I can go no longer….

I do often experience this kind of reaction when I encounter examples of what I call “symbols beyond words” in writing. The lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas”  also use symbols beyond words, but I don’t have this reaction to many other songs–though now that I think about it, as I write about in Happier at Home, I have the same reaction to “Raggle Taggle Gypsy.”

I thought I was the only one to experience this, so I was stuck by this passage from Carl Jung’s unforgettable memoir,  Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

 When I visited the stupas of Sanchi, where Buddha delivered his fire sermon, I was overcome by a strong emotion of the kind that frequently develops in me when I encounter a thing, person, or idea of whose significance I am still unconscious.

I love “Good King Wenceslas” so much that I included an allusion to it in the text of the book I wrote with a friend, Four to Llewelyn’s Edge.

Do you ever have this kind of reaction to something you hear, see, or look at?

I’ve listened to the song about thirty times while writing this post.

  • Petra

    Dear Gretchen! It is really glorious! And it has Czech origin because of “king Wenceslas” = saint Vaclav in our republic, one of the most favourite saints and “patrons” of our country. But we do not sing this carrol in Bohemia… Maybe it is time to change it. 😉

  • I have the same feeling whenever I hear “Carol of the Bells”. For some reason it always sounds so haunting to me, and as a child I was always frightened of it. I do love the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s version of it, but it’s the only one I’ll listen to.

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh I love that carol too.

    • rbo

      Yes! That’s in the same “family” to me as GKW and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

  • Cyndi L

    Yes! I know it sounds hokey, but every single time I hear “The Star Spangled Banner”, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I get chills all over my body. Wierd!

  • What a wonderful carol! Joyous and vivid! When you have time, listen to a very beautiful Romanian carol, perhaps the most beautiful of the entire Romanian tradition.. It is of a different emotional colour, as compared to what Mrs. Rubin showed us – but this proves the immense force that music has.


  • peninith1

    Good King Wenceslas has always been a favorite carol for me, and when I had my sons, even more so. Why? Because it was the song my older son (now 37) demanded night after night, winter and summer. I know all the words by heart, and can sing it in ‘three voices–page, monarch, and narrator. I think it is especially powerful in its evocation of the warmth within, the cold and poverty without, the mystery and excitement of a quest in the snow, and the miracle of the saint’s warmth ‘in the very sod’. Everything about it is generous, observant, strong, and loving. The admonition to be generous with your goods, the example of a king in his castle who can look out and empathize with the poor, the enlistment of the page, who has knowledge of his own to offer, the journey through the storm and snow. I agree that it is hard for me to hear or to sing without tears of love, joy, nostalgia, and just overwhelming emotion. The Jungian part, I think, is that SINGING the lyric makes you embody, by turns, all the characters, named or unnamed, and inhabit all the scenes. It is a ‘song of power’ and, like many a tale of many a saint, is more meaningful than historical. Once again, I am delighted to find that the things that resound in another’s soul are the same as those that resound in mine.

  • emd04

    I just love this song–it makes me really happy, because my favorite version is Loreen McKennit’s, and she does a really upbeat version with a sort of Middle Eastern drum instrumental line. I always play it when I’m decorating the tree. (Actually, her whole Christmas CD makes me CRAZY happy.)

  • diane

    Wow, Gretchen. I’d never paid a bit of attention to the lyrics beyond the first stanza. Today, by the time I reached the last stanza, I had chills. What a great way to begin the season. Thank you.

  • Jamie SC

    Oh Holy Night is the one that gets me.

  • Judie B

    I do have this happen, I’ve been hearing Gordon Lightfoot’s “On a Winter’s Night” played on a Christmas radio station, and that song evokes in me those same emotions that you describe.

  • kateaplin

    Have you ever heard ‘wind through the olive trees’? Beautiful and really evocative … I find it is unique in the way it brings out latent religious tendencies in me!

  • Kate

    Oddly enough I have this same reaction to “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” I sing that song ALL year long, not just during the holiday season. Something about the tune just speaks to something in me.
    Why odd? Well, for one, I’m a terrible singer. For two, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool atheist!

    • Bec

      Me too! i whistle it all year round. Drives my colleagues insane

    • mejaka

      That one gets a lot of people, and part of the reason is that it’s written very well in a minor key (the only Christmas carol or song that is). The minor key is used far less often and tends to get our attention; combine it with lively melody instead of the usual dirgelike music and the musical instincts in all of us really pay attention.

  • Janet

    Yes, Gretchen, Willie Nelson’s song “You Were Always on My Mind.”does that to me. I played his rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” many, many times after my dad died and cried every time. Today is the two year anniversary of his death and yes it still brings tears. “I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day, in everything that’s bright and gay, I’ll always think of you that way. In the summer’s sun and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

    I greatly admire your honesty and vulnerability. Not too many people would admit to having these feelings and reactions to a song. I am very grateful to you for sharing this.


  • rbo

    That’s been my favorite Christmas song for years! (And Kate, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is my other favorite!) An excellent production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol affects me similarly. All three works have a noble, haunting, archaic quality that gives me chills. They also represent the true spirit of Christmas without resorting to cartoonish “cutesy-ness.”

    When my 17-year-old was an infant, we bought an illustrated children’s book, the words of which were the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas. The illustrations were in the style of wood cuts, painted in richly saturated colors — wonderful! I memorized the lyrics that first Christmas season with our child while reading/singing the book to him. I’ve hit the age at which I can’t recall what happened yesterday — but i still remember those lyrics!

    • yscakegirl

      We have that beautiful book too, bought when my 16 year old was a baby. We would get it out overnight for the month before Christmas and sing it together. I still have such clear and touching memories of my little 3 year old reducing a caroling party to tears and awe with her ability to sing the whole song through by herself.

  • Sharyn

    For me, it’s the Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_DKWlrA24k

    Those first other-worldly “ooooooohhhhhhhs” just transfix me.

  • Amble

    OK, I have this feeling connected to “God Rest Ye Merry”, the “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey ” song by Gerry and the Pacemakers and the little end bit of “Hush Little Baby” – my mother used to sing “Hear oh hear the night bird’s song. Sweetly singing all night long.” It’s akin to the feeling of deja vu – a “remembered” emotion somehow.

  • Molly

    I have never paid attention to those lyrics, either, but they are very profound and I will look at that song in a new way. I really like good Christmas Carols, but the songs that always do this to me are Amazing Grace and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I cannot get through either of those having some emotional reaction.

  • Felicity

    I love that carol too… it elevates. Did you ever hear the joke about Wenceslas’ favourite pizza: deep pan, crisp and even? 🙂

  • Shelley

    I’ve never known the words to this song other than the first few lines. What a wonderful story. I agree that it is very moving. Can’t get away with the gypsy song, though. I loved Celtic music when I first discovered it here in Britain, but now I just find it rather repetitive. Still love a good ceilidh though!

  • roecocouk

    For me it’s “Away in a Manger” that does this. I think it stirs memories from very early childhood when I was too young to process the overwhelming emotional reaction I had to the lyrics. I sometimes feel fed up with Christmas music being endlessly repeated in shops and cafes at this time of year. Your post has reminded me to think and hear afresh and to find the joy in the nostalgia and emotions the music inspires. Thanks!

  • Veronique

    ‘Oh Holy NIght’ every time we get to the fall on your knees part I start to cry. It can be a little embarrassing if I’m out shopping or something. It was my dad’s favourite.

    • Amy

      That phrase gives me chills and makes me cry, too, but I’m not sure why. No connection that I can think of, maybe just gives the feeling of giving yourself over to someone/something else completely. I don’t know. And I’m not religious at all, so it’s strange. Neat that someone else has the same reaction!

  • gragusa

    Very nice Gretchen, there is power in allusion, as people are not quite sure what they are doing or why more importantly. But the allusion is that there is a deeper need for purpose in ones life, as there is a need for clarity of purpose.

  • peninith1

    LOVE that so many people have favorite carols and that so many love this favorite one of mine. You know what I think might be another thing that makes this so very evocative and emotional–it isn’t a ‘neat wrap up’. At the ‘end of the story’ there they are, page and monarch trekking through the snow in the night, with their burden of gifts and their intention, and that unknown peasant ‘underneath the mountain’ as the goal. This is the great journey of our lives–bringing the best we have through the dark. Who might that mysterious ‘yonder peasant be’ but the unknown God himself?

  • Eliza

    This is how I feel about “A Cradle in Bethlehem” by Nat King Cole: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2B7hVTx_D4g

    I used to listen to his Christmas record when I was a very little girl and I have always loved it more than any other Christmas album. Every time I hear it I get that same peaceful feeling about “what Christmas is really all about.”

  • Eliza

    Love your blog by the way. I think this might be the first time I’ve commented though!

    And I also love the lyrics of Good King Wenceslas. I remember playing it on the piano (again, when I was a very little girl) and the illustration on the piano book page of a beggar in the snow.

  • Annette

    I have heard people can have intense, even to the point of breaking out crying, reactions sometimes they see a painting that has a connection to them. Sorry, don’t know the word . . . .

  • My favourite is “Adeste Fidele” – it brings up so many youth memories of school celebrations and choir.

  • mejaka

    I just bought a beautiful children’s picture book featuring the story and lyrics (with other text as well). This has always been one of my favorite carols, almost never sung and usually then only the first verse. But it’s so beautiful. And yes, it gives me chills and tears.

  • Cynthia

    I have always loved this carol for the feelings it gives me-the warmth and kindness of the King toward not just the poor but his page make one think of how each person can help their fellow man. I love singing it as loud as I can as well and always feel very Christmasy ,indeed, each time I hear it! Merry Christmas to all and take care of your fellow man!

  • Cath

    For me the carol that sends shivers through me is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. However, the song that affects me most in an emotional and incomprehensible way is Abba’s “Money, money, money!” When I hear it I actually get flashbacks to a concrete shopping mall which I don’t recognise and I also feel very scared. I would like to know why but, at the same time, I am scared of finding out!

  • Val

    I love the Skydiggers’ version of Good King Wenceslas http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdNcaO1iqsQ

    • gretchenrubin

      Just listened. Beautiful.

  • Ridney

    Now that I know the lyrics, I’m loving that carol, too…I’ve been listening to different version of it.

    The one that always gets me is Little Drummer Boy…this version is fabulous!


  • Hi Gretchen,

    I actually think this prickly, tears-in-the-eyes feeling is called “liking music” 🙂 My knowledge of philosophy is limited to a few undergraduate classes but I seem to remember a professor once making a comparison to ἔκστασις (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecstasy_(philosophy), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_ecstasy). Which, I guess if true, to some extent would explain the important role that music often plays in religion. But maybe I’m remembering it wrong, and it was really κάθαρσις (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharsis)?

    Anyway, yes, other people do have this feeling, I’ve had this feeling with all kinds of music, from christmas carols (this year it was “Hark, the Herald”) to hip-hop (yes, even rap, believe it or not). I believe feelings like this are a kind of signpost from your subconscious — IMO it’s important to pay attention when you feel this because it’s a message to you that there’s something in the music or lyrics that has a special significance to you that you may not even fully, consciously, completely understand.

    Hope you had a great holiday season.

  • Emily

    I have the same feeling with “Raggle Taggle Gyspy”

    • gretchenrubin

      You do? You know I mentioned that song in Happier at Home, and why I did in the Behind-the-Scenes extra, right? Otherwise the coincidence is unbelievable.
      CRAZY about that song. Email me if you want the Behind-the-Scenes to read more about it.

  • KT from AZ

    I love the Good King as well, for all the reasons everyone has listed. (And btw, that page had a good heart as well!)

    As a musician, I have a LOT of those goose-bump pieces. I have to say, though, from an organist’s standpoint, my favorite Christmas carol is “Joy to the World.” Not only do I love the sentiment of those four words, that thing is a *blast* to play! 🙂

    May I recommend (for next Christmas season!) the album “On Yoolis Night” by Anonymous 4? Four women, singing medieval carols in a mix of old English and Latin a capella. Glorious and beautiful and magical.

  • Brenda

    For me it’s a certain section of Amahl and the Night visitors, when the boy sings “I can walk Mother” Just writing it makes me tear up! (I love the whole thing actually, but it’s that particular part that gets me every time.

  • Jill

    Internal rhyme, vowel rhyme and other aspects of accented verse in Anglo-Gaelic prosody are powerfully at work in these old folk songs… read more in sources such as ‘Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney,’ By Robert F. Garratt, 1989. (p.110)

  • Is it the words or is it the music? It sounds like a march, which feels energizing. Is there a particular version you like?

  • R Bunga

    I totally agree with your feelings about “Good King Wenceslas.” Happens to me every year!

  • Ann Boyd

    This often happens to me when I watch dance performances. It’s kind of unpredictable, but I always bring tissues to dance shows, whether it is ballet or hip hop. You should see what a mess I become at my daughters’ ballet recitals!