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It wasn’t very deep and crisp and even, but snow did lie ‘round about, as we drove away from Prague, the birthplace of King Wenceslas.

The landscape was frosted, but the car was warm. With my husband at the wheel, I had the luxury of dozing while Christmas music played on the stereo.

I woke up, recognizing the tune trickling from the speakers as we drove through the whitened countryside.

"Therefore, Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing."Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing."

It was "Good King Wenceslas." Life in the military has its trials, but seeing lands of history and legend is a pretty good payback — no extra charge for serendipitous musical accompaniment.

Two days earlier, we walked along Wenceslas Square in Prague and stood under the towering statue of the man himself on his horse.

The last notes of the song faded away, and so did the remnants of snow as we approached the border with Germany, our adopted home.

I remembered a wintry night at another assignment in a very different landscape. Snowfall is rare in Los Angeles — at Christmas, or any time — but that particular evening was chilly, and the background music was familiar.

On a December night, after having dinner in Long Beach, my husband and I ducked into a warm coffee shop, a respite from the cold walk back to our car.

We ordered my caramel latte and Mark’s chai tea and found some comfy chairs to wait for our hot drinks. Soon the doors opened again, and a man came in on a gust of winter air.

He was ragged — both his clothes and his expression. He didn’t go to the counter to order but, like us, found a warm spot and a soft chair.

Mark and I spoke in low voices, our eyes wandering to his sad presence. Living in L.A., we’d become accustomed to seeing needy people and panhandlers, but this man’s detachment distracted us. We wondered if he had come in to get warm or to ask for money. He seemed content just to sit.

Our drinks arrived in festive red cups. Christmas music played softly. People gathered at tables, talking and laughing. The man sat.

"What song is that?" my husband asked. It was jazz, and the melody was elusive. I listened. "Good King Wenceslas," I said.

We talked for a minute about the story of the nobleman who hiked miles in a blizzard to take food and firewood to a poor man.

"Then there’s something I need to do," Mark said. He got up and approached the ragged man.

"Can I buy you some coffee?" The man nodded. Mark ordered and paid, and we quickly left. Warming our hands around our own half-empty cups, we were half embarrassed to offer such a small drop of generosity in a season celebrating the ultimate gift.

Good King Wenceslas wasn’t really a king, and his name wasn’t really Wenceslas. He was a duke named Vaclav. It’s even possible that the story in the song never happened, but historians do agree that Vaclav was good, so good that more than a thousand years after his death, he is remembered and honored in his homeland.

Maybe he did give a simple gift of food and warmth on the day after Christmas a millennium ago; or maybe it was the songwriter who gave the gift by propagating the legend. Maybe the gifts should have been bigger. Maybe none of that matters much to a man with a hot cup of coffee on a cold night.

Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany. Contact her at and see the Spouse Calls blog here.


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