When I was made king, I wore a thick black beard, and a tall gold crown bejeweled with rubies as dark as blood, and a heavy silver robe that hung straight down from my shoulders like a drape in a movie house. That was as it should be. I was only a play king, after all, just a kid. The beard was pasted to my face. The myrrh, a small brass vase fit for a single flower, I held before me at my waist, with elaborate gentleness to suggest that the precious liquid must be protected at all costs from spilling onto the sand.

Not that there was any sand. Not that there was any precious liquid. Not that I would have recognized its preciousness in any case, my entire knowledge of myrrh deriving from the lines I sang, about its being "bitter perfume" that "breathes a life of gathering gloom." As for the procession itself, felt a shade out of place. It was a Quaker school and I, a Jew, was taking part in the Christian ceremony, the pageant, the heart and beginning of the story in which my people were eventually and ignorantly to be condemmed. o

Yet I bore my myrrh all the same, and sang out my heart with my two fellow kings, Messrs. Gold and Frankincese. Here's how we did it in rehearsal: We three kings of Oreint are , Tried to smoke a rubber cigar , It was loaded, it exploded , That's how we got so far .

(In those days such stuff passed for sacrilege, and humor.) But when it came to putting on the show for real, we sang the song the right way, about our "star of wonder," the cardboard star suspended on wires above the alabaster child.

The truth was that I did not feel all that out of place in the ceremony. For one thing, the pageant was inclusive, welcoming; it did not allow for misfits, this story of the birth of a supreme misfit. For another, it was played by children, who love a misfit naturally, and were honoring one of their own.

Which may be why parents cry at pageants -- cry for the lost lives of the children, sure to be lost, singing the praises of one whose life is also sure to be lost, at the outset. Those expensive gifts the kings carry will not amount to much in the long run. In the long run, a grown-up's fear -- a king's, in fact -- will take the life of that child, will say to children everywhere of every time: you know, you are not to be trusted.

Which is true.

Take that Jesus kid, for example, the smallest part in the show. There was an untrustworthy child for you. Turned the world on its head. Got to watch them every second. Give'em an inch, give'em a finger. They all think they're born under stars.

And they approve of each other, too. Thick as thieves, those kids, the lawless shielding the lawless. They will lie through their teeth, hide each other out, alibi left and right. They have no conscience, no respect for government. What do they care for diplomacy, for detente? Every mother's son knows in his treacherous heart that the world is not his, that kings may come around to make a temporary fuss, but that power belongs to the higher-ups, to the much higher-ups, who will cross you in a moment if you play life too straight, too kind.

Ah, the year 1. Now, that was the International Year of the Child. It was cold, I remember that. And I was afraid the myrrh might freeze in the vase, so that when I finally approached the manager all I would be able to offer my fellow child would be ice. Perhaps that would have been better -- better still to give him nothing whatever, rather than say what I was supposed to say, about breathing a life of gathering gloom. What right had I to tell him that? What right, to present a child with the future?

Yet who could ever be sure of the end of things, on so promising a night?