As a young boy, the song became one of my all time favorites because it was all about me, although why it was sung at Christmas time when my birthday was in February was confusing. It would have been better had it been sung by Gene Autry, but you had to go with what you got.
“Good King Wences Last Looked Out On The Feast of Steven.” At least that’s the way I heard it, and it made sense. Señor Wences was a popular ventriloquist on the Ed Sullivan Show, so why shouldn’t there be a King Wences? Probably a Spanish King of long ago, although I was a bit suspicious of the snow laying round about, cold and crisp and even, because I figured Spain was a sunny, warm place, perhaps something like Florida. I was old enough to know they had made a terrible spelling mistake, Stephen rather than the proper Steven, but it was forgivable. My teacher sometimes made the same one.
That’s a memory that resurfaces each December 26 as I begin to hum the tune, and it reminds me to consider the children in church who are hearing the old stories and songs that are old to us, but new to them. The hermeneutic of the young is inventive. Searching for a context into which words might fit, words that are themselves unfamiliar, will result in some strange takes, but if the words are important, children will do what they can to make sense out of them.
We want those words to be important, so we might want to consider how to craft contexts that go in the right direction. I think that is part of what the popular Godly Play program is about, and I think that’s what pastors try to do with children’s sermons, but seldom achieve.
Once upon a time, there was a young man who was a follower of Jesus. He liked to tell the story of Jesus to anyone who would listen, and he was very good at it. But he died at a young age, so we remember him each year on the day after Christmas to remind us to do what he did and tell the story of Jesus to others.
Once upon another time, a time when there were a lot of bad kings, there was a very good king who lived in a very cold country. His name was Wenceslas. It was a cold, windy, snowy day after Christmas, and the king was remembering about Stephen. He looked out and saw a poor man struggling in the snow to find wood for a fire. King Wenceslas went out into the storm to bring the poor man into the castle for food, drink and warmth. We sing a song about him to remind us to be kind and generous, even if it isn’t easy or convenient.
I might have understood the song better had I heard it explained that way, although I would have been terribly disappointed to learn that it wasn’t about me or a king related to Señor Wences.