Belfast Christmas Market
Culture NI sends its resident Scrooge to the grounds of City Hall to see if the seasonal staple is enough to get him in the holiday spirit
The 'Continental Cottage' at the Christmas Market is the harbinger of the Yuletide season in Belfast. Bratwurst and Smoky Krakauer are as Santa’s little helpers to those wishing to embark on furious festive fun.
Quite why Christmastide should be so definitely stamped with German sausage in Northern Ireland is something of a mystery to me, but it is the case – the merest whiff of smoked German meat is a Proustian rush: like the first sighting of the John Lewis advert or the sale of cheap pumpkins in the shops, it is something forever associated with Christmas.
Once again the gardens of the City Hall have been transformed into a winter wonderland. Michael Buble serenades the woolly jumpered hordes, milling around and gnawing on a bit of kangaroo in a bap. Christmas has become a time to eat something exotic in the cold – caution is thrown to the east wind and buffalo and wild boar are consumed in WWF-bothering quantities.
There are sloping, stripped-pine huts pressed into service in every nook and cranny of City Hall, each one covered in candy canes, fairy lights and faux mistletoe, and each employing people in bobble-hats checking their phones.
The stalls themselves are bulging with glittering Christmas ephemera: scented candles, frameable, aspirational messages, pashminas. It’s like QVC in real-time, high definition. There are gifts here for people that you either don’t really know or that you faintly dislike but are obliged to get them something. The path of least resistance leads to the Christmas market.
I was quite taken with a stall bearing the legend: 'Make your own snow – the magical powder that turns tap water into snow in just three minutes. It’s safe, eco-friendly and 100% reusable'. Assuming you can actually chase after your snow with a butterfly net and a jam jar.
The Mourne Seafood bar is represented by a garden shed offering seafood Cassoulet at £7 a pop, which suggest that they haven’t quite got the measure of the market crowd. But who knows? The St George’s Sunday lot might drift over on the weekend to see what all the fuss is about.
There is, for those with children, a carousel and a giant snow globe that I imagine you can go inside (it wasn’t switched on when I was there), but we all know that Christmas isn’t really for the kids; it’s for drifting into a drunken reverie with a crumpled paper hat on your head.
To that end there are two pubs on the site – a bonsai Lavery’s and The Merry Monk Beer Bar. The latter is a huge boozy conservatory with stained glass windows depicting medieval yeomen pouring frothing nut-brown ale into beer steins and collapsing.
There are four bouncers on the door and it even has a tiny clock-tower. If the illustrated vignettes seem to offer us a sort of Belfast Breugel the activities inside are slightly more restrained, though the trestle tables are packed with a surprising amount of drinkers for three o’ clock on a Tuesday afternoon. But it is December 1 – the first day of Christmas commerce – austerity be damned!
The Christmas market is a safe haven: no harm will come to you or your child in its environs. It is policed, quietly and confidentially, by a very polite and very responsive security team. Nothing untoward is going to happen on their watch!
I know this from experience as I was effectively run off the site for taking 'detailed notes' (Gentlemen, you flatter me!) by men in high visibility tabards. When I protested one of them intimated that I might be an 'industrial spy'. Fearing that I was only minutes away from pitchforks and flaming torches I made my excuses and left.
The Christmas Market then, a welcome distraction from the gruelling horrors of the Christmas shop, where you can try new and unusual foods, take the weight of your feet and have a drink and pick up that Secret Santa novelty gift for Gordon in accounts. Just leave the notebook at home, eh?
The Christmas Market at Belfast City Hall continues until Saturday, December 20. Opening times from Monday - Wednesday are 10am - 8pm, 10am - 10pm from Thursday - Saturday and 1pm - 6pm on Sundays.