More than 200 senior citizens from the Manchester area received an extra-special early Christmas present this year after musicians from Withington Girls’ School decided that despite current Covid-19 restrictions, the show must go on.
Withington’s annual Christmas concert and tea party, traditionally hosted by pupils every December, is the highlight of seasonal festivities for many pensioners in the local community and news that this year’s event was to be cancelled due to the pandemic was received with deep disappointment.
But, thanks to technology and a mammoth team effort, the Fallowfield-based school vowed that if their elderly neighbours couldn’t come into Withington, then they would take Withington to them.
So following Covid-secure and socially-distanced rehearsals that started in September and a filming session at the school in October, the concert went ahead remotely, with senior citizens being invited to enjoy what WGS Director of Music Gilly Sargent described as a ‘virtual musical firework display’ in their own homes.
Withington staff and local community volunteers spread a generous sprinkling of Christmas cheer as they played Santa with the delivery of DVDs featuring a medley of popular Christmas songs performed by the school’s instrumentalists and choristers, with the lyrics displayed karaoke-style on-screen to encourage a sing-along.
And to make up for the pensioners missing out on their much-anticipated tea party this year, they also surprised them with gift packs prepared by Withington pupils and comprising for each recipient a present, a mince pie and shortbread, a small sherry, a Christmas cracker, a raffle ticket and a personal hand-written message from a WGS pupil.
Local community groups in the South Manchester area welcomed Withington’s initiative saying it had lifted the spirits of older members during these difficult times and for many, it had ‘made their Christmas’ to know that they have not been forgotten.
“It’s given people something to look forward to and to talk about,” said Amelia King, project manager at the Assist neighbourhood care charity.
“They really appreciated being remembered because this pandemic has meant that a lot of other things have had to come before them and they often feel left behind.
“They have spent most of this year listening to how everything has had to be cancelled; you can’t do this and you can’t do that, so they are very grateful that at last, there was something they were at last able to do.
“It’s particularly positive that this came from young people who are just down the road so it’s all happened in our local area. They were very impressed with the process and that it was on DVD; for them it was a kind of magic.”
Assist helps to support older people in the Withington and Fallowfield area, and, following an announcement in the organisation’s monthly newsletter promoting Withington’s virtual concert, she said she was inundated with phone calls. Her group of volunteers delivered the gift packs and DVDs to 32 local seniors who all live independently, including one 100-year-old resident.
Feedback from senior members of East Didsbury Ladies Circle was very positive, said the group’s Chair, Mrs Rosie Blayds: “It was wonderful! What an excellent performance, as always.”
Withington’s Director of Music, Mrs Sargent, paid tribute to the WGS school community who have been involved in the project.
“It’s been a massive team effort involving around 250 girls and staff in the musical performances and many more in collating and delivering the gift packs,” she said.
“It was quite surreal to see Christmas come so early to Withington this year. Filming for the DVD started in October – girls turned out in their festive jumpers whilst our Year 13 students dressed as Christmas trees.
With pupils having to perform within their Year group bubbles and working within the social distancing restrictions that apply to musical performances, it was quite a challenge for our production team to pull this together.
“But the Senior Citizens’ Concert and Tea Party is a Withington tradition and we know how important it is to those who attend this annual event. We were upset when we thought it couldn’t go ahead but we were delighted to have found a way around it and it was great for our Withington community and great for our guests.
“It’s just a shame that we were unable to all be together this year but we demonstrated what could be achieved and we are very excited for the possibilities that lie ahead for the future.”
A fundraising page has been set up to raise funds for Manchester’s Wood Street Mission, Booth Centre, St Ann’s Church and the Withington Bursary appeal and donations can be made here.