When I was in Catholic grade school, we always had Christmas pageants. The spectacular was the year I was in eighth grade. Our parish hall had a stage at one end and a kitchen at one side. All parish and school activities took place there if they weren’t held in church or outdoors: enchilada dinners, volleyball games, basketball games, PTA meetings, plays, everything. Mother Mary Scholastica, who in another life might have been a Marine drill sergeant or a diva of some art, directed. The girls’ choir stood on risers at the back of the stage, with screens in front of us, singing appropriate carols while the Nativity was acted out in front of the screens. At the dramatic moment, the curtains closed briefly, the screens were quickly removed, and the curtains swung open to reveal us, in white robes and gold tinsel halos, singing the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” chorus of “Angels We Heard on High.”

I’m sure that the impact on the audience of our parents was powerful. This was a working-class parish in the barrio of Westminster, California. Our fathers had built the school buildings mainly with their own hands. At the end of every summer, we students came to help the sisters clean the classrooms for school. Possibly no one in that hall had ever been to a professional live concert.

Then the “Three Kings” came walking through the hall: three eighth-grade boys who, incredibly, were not afraid to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all by themselves. They were dressed in all the velvet and glitter the sisters could come up with; I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Scarlett O’Hara, they used the drapes. I don’t remember the third king, but one was my dear friend since-first-grade Jimmy Ristrom, who, already at that age, had a big bass voice, and a second was Richard Martin, with whom I was madly in love as only a 13-year-old can be. (The universe has blessed me with reconnection with both of them these past few years.)

I can still sing–and sometimes do when I’m alone–the alto parts to “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and of course “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” singing along with a CD or the radio. I no longer believe in the religious underpinnings, but I still believe–as much as I believe in anything–that we can be better than we are, that we can make things better for others, that honest and unselfish love matters. I still value being open to whatever life brings, as was Mary in the Christmas story; seeing the possibility of greatness in the meanest surroundings, as did the shepherds; caring for those who need us, even if we don’t understand, as did Joseph. I still try to live by the best of what I learned in those days.