Culture NI's Christmas Gift Guide 2017
Left your shopping late? Not to worry, we've compiled a wealth of ideas to inspire the perfect purchase while there's still time
'Got your shopping all done?' It's a question we all dread to hear, especially those of us who leave our gift-getting sprees to what seems like the last minute year after year. And with the Black Friday sales now a distant speck in the rearview mirror and the decorations all firmly in place (besides the Elf on the Shelf) – it's crunch time.
Luckily, Culture NI has compiled a cracker list to help save you from the increasingly patience-testing high street melee as the countdown ticks ever closer to December 25. You'll not only find something to suit (almost) every taste, but by treating someone to any of what's below you'll also be supporting independent artists and businesses doing their best to compete with the muscle of major retailers in every area across the country.
From unique home furnishings and decorative pieces handcrafted by local makers to this year's best literary releases and cultural experiences for 2018, you won't need to resort to the Argos catalogue yet again nor come up with a convenient excuse to use your friend's Amazon Prime account. This year you can finally think outside of the box that was left with a neighbour because you weren't in between 11 and three to sign for it – or at least pretend that you thought of it yourself!
The sleepy void between Christmas and New Year is an ideal time to curl up with a book which may have been destined to a life of neglect had it been bought earlier in the year. Happily, the past 12 months has been replete with soul-nourishing reads by writers based here on our doorstep. From revered names reclaiming their rightful places on our shelves (Bernard MacLaverty's season-appropriate Midwinter Break, Maurice Leitch's recently reissued Silver's City – one of the first novels to portray the Troubles), to captivating debuts (Ciaran McMenamin's '90s Enniskillen-set Skintown, Sharon Dempsey's Belfast crime thriller Little Bird), there's a fictional world for everyone to retreat to this winter.
Other assorted titles too good not to mention include Here We Are, the heartwarming new picture book by children's author/illustrator Oliver Jeffers; Jan Carson's collection of Postcard Stories giving 'a panoramic view of contemporary Belfast'; playwright Stewart Parker's newly published 'lost' autobiographical work Hopdance and Gerald Dawe's latest chronicle of Van Morrison and Belfast, In Another World.
That's not to forget The Dead Beside Us by Tony Doherty, On Balance by Sinead Morrissey, Ireland's Beautiful North by Dominic Kearney, The Rule of the Land by Garrett Carr, Ower the Tuppenny by Margaret Cameron (launched by the Ulster-Scots Agency) and Josef Locke: The People's Tenor by Nuala McAllister. A truly outstanding year for writing rooted in this part of the world.
In an age of infinite music more readily available to consume than running water it's more difficult than ever to even highlight everything being produced here. So instead of cherrypicking a handful of choice albums for you to seek out online, we implore you to instead set foot in any number of record shops dotted around the country where you'll find vast libraries of new and old releases and rarities available – mostly - on vinyl.
Whether it's a seven inch single or a limited edition double gatefold super deluxe box set, there is just something special about the renascent format. The greater emphasis on artwork, sense of physical ownership and of course pleasing practical element of removing the record from its sleeve and dropping the needle down all add up to a more meaningful package than any iTunes giftcard or Spotify subscription could – no matter how much more convenient they might be.
So set aside some time to go crate digging this Christmas. Stores well worth a visit include Cool Discs and Abbazappa (in the Yellow Yard, Bedlam and the Emporium) in Derry~Londonderry, Belfast Underground, Head and Octopus's Garden in Belfast, Stewart's Music Shop in Dungannon, Bending Sound in Bangor, Fairhill (formerly Track) Records in Ballymena and Armagh Music.
The Yellow Yard in Derry~Londonderry
A great way to relieve that empty feeling that's left when the decorations inevitably have to come down is with a new piece of art for your nearest and dearest to have on display in their home. An original painting or print can help restore the liveliness to any living room as well as making for a much more permanent fixture than any flashing lights or tinsel.
Breathe new life into a bleak January with a quaint, colourful illustration of somewhere familiar in Belfast and beyond by Flax Fox (available on everything from prints and postcards to t-shirts and tea towels), Francis McCrory's moody oil paintings of landmarks like the Grand Opera House or a beautiful framed image in the unique style of Derry Nice Things.
Other artists specialising in wonderfully homely works include Stephen Fernan, whose Captured Memories series portrays scenes all across Northern Ireland in striking monochrome, on hand rolled porcelain, ripped around the edges and displayed in a square frame. For anyone who wishes real life could look like it does on Instagram one of these just might be the perfect fit.
Working with a different medium but with a similarly local streak running through her portfolio is Banbridge-based designer-maker Lisa Dodds. From her White Chalk Studio Lisa creates a range of products using various techniques to adorn metallic prints, bags and other items with her distinctive drawings. Another artist whose work would have an obvious appeal with fans of that elegant, vintage (and highly Instagrammable) aesthetic.
Elsewhere, for those seeking out something more personal Debmon Design can do charming cartoon portraits of families, couples and even pets, while any TV or film fanatic would be privileged to receive a poster or print in the impossible-to-imitate style of Belfast and resident Queen's Film Theatre illustrator Peter Strain.
Speaking of Queen's Film Theatre, the Belfast cinema which next year celebrates its 50th birthday and is currently in the midst of a magical Christmas programme, has brought a sprinkle of festive imagination to the 'movie night' concept this year with its QFT Gift Packs. Presented in a charming cinema reel can that you'll want to keep all for yourself, each pack includes tickets, popcorn, sweets and a bottle of wine, altogether making for an unforgettable film-going experience for two. Gift Packs are priced at £35.00 and can be purchased only at the QFT Box Office, however vouchers worth £5-100 are also available online.
Also offering the gift of film with similar vouchers are Belfast Film Festival, The Treehouse, Strand Arts Centre, Movie House Cinemas, Omniplex, Brunswick Moviebowl, Odeon Belfast and Odyssey Cinemas.
For a pre-Christmas treat, Belfast's Redeemer Central church is hosting a free family matinee screening of Home Alone on Saturday, December 16 (also at the Black Box), while you can also catch classics like Santa Claus: The Movie, Elf and Bad Santa on board the Belfast Barge. In Ballyclare, The Picture House have Home Alone back to back with It's a Wonderful Life for a bumper day of big screen joy on Saturday, December 23.
Alternatively, there's still time for a Titanic experience as the blockbuster's 20th anniversary celebrations continue at Titanic Belfast until December 19. Relive James Cameron's Oscar-winning epic with afternoon tea, prosecco or a non-alcoholic cocktail in the suitably opulant surrounds of the Titanic Suite and, even better, if your name is Jack or Rose (or even a variation of the two) you can enjoy free entry.
But what about quality viewing material that can be enjoyed from the comfort of the couch? With streaming services further asserting their dominance over more traditional home media, it hasn't been a year packed with physical releases of films and TV shows shot in or with a connection to Northern Ireland, however there are still a handful of DVDs or Blu-rays that will happily pass a few hours post-turkey and ham.
Arguably what drew most attention this year (and throughout last) was The Journey. The fictionalised account of a shared excursion between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisely Sr on the advent of shared power in Northern Ireland was warmly received by local media when it premiered in May – for anyone who witnessed the two late leaders' relationship evolve so dramatically over the past decade it's certainly an interesting – albeit imagined - look back.
Elsewhere, the true story and tragedy of Belfast's greatest ever sporting son was immortalised once more in George Best: All By Himself. A stocking filler not just for football fans, Daniel Gordon's documentary is an unrelenting, unpolished presentation charting the Manchester United forward's genius on the field, and steady descent off of it. Not the cheeriest of subjects perhaps, but a nonetheless powerful reminder of one of our most globally renowned names.
Of course, fans of TV drama in Northern Ireland will need little reminding of the how big a role we play in the physical landscape of Game of Thrones. In fact, just this week Belfast International Airport was 'renamed' Westeros Airport in honour of season seven's home release. Now that winter has come, and we're still a long way away from the show's concluding run, it's an ideal time to wrap up warm and revisit the explosive episodes from earlier this year.
In a similar vein to artworks intended to be hung on a wall, beautiful hand-crafted items can brighten the domestic dreariness of early New Year and continue to hold a special place long after. They often provide an extra dimension of joy because of physical properties like texture and smell in addition to the obvious visual benefits they bring to any room or setting.
Whether it be bespoke ceramics (Rebecca Killen, Mourne Creative, Niamh Fahy, Leona Devine, Richard Wall), unique jewellery (Emma Knight, Clare Hart, Stewart Cairns), home decor (RusticoJo, Rachel Calder, Justin Wood) or all manner of other textiles, glassware and such, these gifts all boast a certain human touch that's hard to buy in other fields. What's more, while many are embracing the age of convenience with online stores, an array of regular markets and enchanting stores across the country make it just as easy to pick up something special just about anywhere.
Recently Culture NI ran a competition in which we gave away a fantastic selection of prizes provided by some of the names already mentioned above, but for those which haven't there's further gift-giving inspiration in the upcoming events programmes at the MAC, Grand Opera House, Belfast Waterfront and the Ulster Hall, or whatever your local arts/cultural venue might be. You're bound to find something that's just the ticket.
Any craft beer enthusiast meanwhile will have their thirst for knowledge and local brews quenched with vouchers from Taste and Tour NI, and finally, those with a penchant for style but lacking that touch of home could use a silk pocket square by Stephen Whalley, because what's sharper than a suit with a splash of the Dark Hedges or Samson and Goliath?