Christmas in Northern Ireland

Martin Mooney wonders what makes Christmas in NI special

Please note: This article dates back to 2006 in our archives. Some information may no longer be accurate.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board are running a children’s painting competition, calling for Christmas card illustrations that sum up what the season means in the North.

They make a couple of suggestions, prompts for the imagination, one of which conjures a vision of a snow-capped Slieve Donard that I found preyed on my mind for weeks.

And then I remembered the story I’d been told of the police surgeon who’d once been on duty over the holidays, and was called out when a hill farmer thought he’d discovered a body up in the sleety, rather than snow-capped, Mournes.

The pathologist called a couple of his students who he knew were at a loose end, and they all hiked over the moorland only to find, far gone in decay, a goat. Thankfully, someone had had the foresight to bring a hipflask, and the impromptu Christmas party was enjoyed by all. Except, presumably, the goat.

Which only goes to show that, in the festive season, much depends upon luck and chance, association, memory, the strange visceral connections the human mind forms between past and present, and the dying art of making the best of a bad lot.

Born and bred an atheist, I’ve been known to cry my eyes out at Away in a Manger, even when I’m the one singing it. In a country where Midnight Mass is now served at nine or ten in the evening, so that the menfolk aren’t too sloshed, we are drawn to the candles like moths.

But what truly epitomises Christmas in Northern Ireland? Everyone will have their own images, their own associations. The collective portrayal is too much a matter of z-list tabloid fodder – one of the Crankies, maybe, or someone in a Tweenies costume, or the runner-up in last year’s I’m a Big Celebrity Get Dancing – who switches on the Christmas lights – normally in early November – with all the style and panache of Homer Simpson operating the Springfield nuclear power plant.

For myself, I’m a traditionalist. The Christmas lights should just mysteriously come on, a week or so into December. You should glance up on your way home from work, and suddenly be spirited away into a beautiful world of surprise, a winter wonderland.

And then you should think, 'Hell’s bells, only a fortnight to go and I haven’t bought a single present yet!'

In these days of late night shopping and Boxing Day sales (consumption isn’t just conspicuous at this time of year, it’s guilty of indecent exposure) one of my most abiding Christmas memories is of scuffling around my home town without a cigarette, and without a friend to give me one.

Recall how empty Northern Ireland used to be, in the days before 24-hour petrol stations? But on this particular Christmas, I kicked a discarded packet and found it full, its cellophane unbroken. Thank you Santa! God rest ye, merry gentleman who dropped 20 Regal in the street! And best of all, there was nobody around to see me bend down and scoop the packet off the frosty tarmac.

An American visitor has posted images of Christmas in Belfast on the web. This is the other side of a Northern Christmas, its guilty conscience, and it’s drearier than a 1950s Sunday in Ballyhalbert. Grey skies, deserted streets, not a snowy mountain in sight.

On and on those wide, puddled, Edwardian thoroughfares stretch, and not a sinner in them. At the far end of a desolate Chichester Street, the Waterfront Hall looks like solidified silence – or not silence, exactly, but the noise of a car or two on the distant motorway, heading somewhere, well, populated.

The photographs suggest a post-apocalyptic scene, the opening of 28 Days Later, say. Everyone’s vanished, but they’ve left the Christmas lights on, Santa’s reindeer twinkling forlornly between the abandoned buildings. Ho ho ho...

But why should we worry about one forlorn wee soul who has obviously missed the whole point of the Festive season, which is to buy all the pan loaves Tesco can provide, then huddle down with the family until capitalism has decided we’ve all had enough of a break and it’s time we went back to work.

Forget the abandoned town centres on the day itself. Remember them as they were a week ago, packed with shoppers, the decorations using so much electricity that we left a carbon footprint the size of Venezuela, the smell of glühwein and kangaroo burgers bubbling from the Continental Market outside Belfast City Hall.

I love the Continental Market. I love traditions that were invented fifteen minutes ago, and will defend to the death my right to sit under a Spaceheater and drink mulled cider while a choir from a primary school somewhere sings about Baby Jesus. Or Rudolf.

Twenty minutes does the shopping, everyone gets something hand-made and ethnic, and I don’t have to listen to Stop the Cavalry and Merry Christmas – War is Over while I shoulder my way to a bar crowded with people who seem only pale growths sprouting from mounds of carrier bags.

But it’s peculiar that the best thing about Christmas in Belfast should have to be marketed as so self-consciously foreign. It’s as if the season itself was an import, like Diwali, or Polish beer.

But then, compare our real traditions. I don’t mean the puritan begrudgery with which Christmas used to be more or less celebrated. The hostile relatives, the churchgoing, the sherry. I mean something much, much worse.

Mumming. Now, think about it. A shower of culchies show up at your house wearing big wickerwork masks. Quite literally, basket-cases.

They shout some bad verse about St Patrick or St George, and then you have to give them all something from your carry-out, which was meant to last till New Year’s Eve, and has barely seen you through till Boxing Day. Or St Stephen’s Day, as they insist on calling it, roistering through the lanes in search of a wren to catch. The children must have had nightmares all the way to Easter.

Of course, the mumming tradition has sadly decayed. These days, if masked men show up at your house around Christmas, you probably work for the Northern Bank.

No, in the stony face of our actual traditions – the tangerine at the bottom of the football sock, the angry whine of fathers the length and breadth of Ulster saying ‘Nobody said it needed batteries!’ – the invention of the Continental Market has saved Christmas in Belfast. Everyone should have one. Even Prague.

Unless, of course, in the latter city’s Wenceslas – yes, that Wenceslas – Square, every Christmas sees the erection of a Northern Irish market, complete with great vats of Harp and Cookstown sausages sizzling away, lovers drifting through the stalls to the cries of ‘Get yer lavly rappin paper!’ and ‘lighters three fer a poun!’

Surely your heart warms to the vision of the authentic Northern Irish Christmas shared with the world? This is a time for giving, after all.

Have a good one.