The Meaning of Two Christmas Concerts Today

One of the blessings of attending the Unitarian Church of Buffalo is that we have great music. Today, in addition to our wonderful professional choir, we had The Chamber Orchestra of The Buffalo Philharmonic Musicians performing Puccini’s “Magnificat”, Mozart’s “Te Deum”, and Handel’s “Sound an Alarm” from “Judas Maccabaeus”.

 The following are notes written by our music director, Barbara Wagner:

 “Sound an Alarm”

“The political context is the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Handel, in 1746 hastily composed the Occasional Oratorio for the encouragement of the English. After the success of the British forces at the Battle of Culloden, he started a work in honor of the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. The first performance of “Judas Maccabaeus” took place on April1, 1747, at Covent Garden. It was to become one of Handel’s most popular oratorios…”

I listened intently. My first reaction was to be insulted, for the British slaughtered Clan MacDonald at the Battle of Culloden. That’s my clan. Of course I didn’t know it most of my life because I did not find out I was a wee bit Scottish on my mother’s side until I met my blood-kin in March of 1974 when I was 18 years old. One of my great grandmothers was a McQuiston, which is part of the larger MacDonald Clan. When I went to Liverpool, United Kingdom, in 1976 to meet a sister there (spoiler alert for my book), I quickly learned some of my heritage from folk music. Particularly, “The Massacre of Glencoe”, sung by Roy Williamson of The Corries, a Scottish duo. For the past 30+years I’ve immersed myself in that haunting recollection of an earlier British-Scottish battle on December 31st 1691 in which the Brits murdered the Clan MacDonald.

Now, today at church, I tried to hear the beauty in Handel’s music portraying the British version of one of the Battles that killed my ancestors. Yes, it was a beautiful piece of music, but I couldn’t shake being startled. As I contemplated, another observation came to me. The man singing this “Sound an Alarm” had the last name of “MacDonald”. I scratched my head on that bit of irony.

Then, slowly, I thought about my adoptive father who died in 1982. He was half English, his father was English. Fortunately for me, his English heritage was never stressed during my childhood. No, my father’s Polish mother was more important, probably because his father died young and the English heritage of the Wheeler family died with him. So, thankfully, the famous Battles of Culloden and Glencoe between the British and the Scottish were not part of my childhood stories while I was growing up.

Since our society is so big on forcing adoptees to choose: “No, I’M your REAL mother!”, here I sit today thinking: so, which side of this battle am I on? The British or the Scottish? If a Clan MacDonald killed a Brit, and my Wheeler family is of British ancestry, would that be an insult to my adoptive family? The battles were British victories in killing my Scottish ancestors. Obviously some of the Clan MacDonald survived else I would not be here. So, whose side should I be on? Should I be loyal to my adoptive family’s ancestors for being the victors over my Scottish blood-kin? Should I rise up with pride at the Scottish singing of “The Massacre of Glencoe” so I may honor my murdered ancestors?

Ahh, the blessings of being adopted.

The other Christmas concert was even more bitter-sweet. My friend, Nan Hoffman, and her long-time friends, Joe, Kathy, Tom and Mary, sang one of their Christmas-season concerts this afternoon. When my children were in middle school, I took them, and their grandmother, my adoptive mother, to see this folk music concert. We may have missed a few concerts here and there, but these last few years, I brought Mom. Last year she was in a wheel chair. This year, Mom is in a nursing home.

Nan and her friends bring their talents to Christmas favorites, but for me, their shows give me the chance to remember the two Christmases I spent with one of my sisters in Liverpool, England.

There, my sister and I went to see The Liverpool Spinners in their Christmas concerts. They sang songs I had not heard in Buffalo, so when Nan and her friends began their Christmas concerts long ago, I have been  recalling the special times I had in Liverpool. Songs such as, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and, “Jamaican Christmas Carol,” and “Mary Had a Baby Boy” and “The Holly and The Ivy” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Tears filled my eyes as I hear Nan’s sweet voice, and the harmonies of the others, but my mind also hears the voices of Cliff, Mick, Hughie, and Tony of The Liverpool Spinners.

 I am also reminded of another Liverpudlian folk duo, Jacqui and Bridie. I did not meet them in Liverpool, however. No, they came to Buffalo with their musical talents and wonderful wit for over twenty years. Bridie died many years ago. After that, Jacqui traveled and sang with Lynn. And always, Jacqui sang “Mist Over the Mersey” for me. That song was written by another Liverpudlian folk singer, Jack Owen, who I met in Liverpool.

So, Nan and friends not only fill my soul with their lively voices, but they bring back to me my joyful memories.

These last few years, Nan and friends have stopped singing John McCutchin’s, “Christmas in the Trenches”, about World War I: “My name is Francis Toliver, from Liverpool I dwell…”

The biggest flow of tears came for me this afternoon as the group sang Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now”. That song is so touching, so wonderful, contrasting a child’s memories of going to church with the grown child’s realization that “everything is Holy Now.”

 It is a sad reminder that this will be my mother’s last Christmas. I’ll remember it for her.

“Everything is Holy Now” is also a sad reminder that 53 years ago, my pregnant mother did not know why she was so sick during her pregnancy with me. She went into the hospital two days after Christmas and never came home again. Neither did her baby.