Raising a glass to Christmases past and present
I love Christmas and always have done. I love that everyone (well almost everyone) is off work for a few days, like we have all taken a collective time out from work. During a summer holiday there is always the chance that colleagues and clients are still at work, your phone will still ping with emails and the odd call, but at Christmas most people down tools at least for a few days. The feeling of unplugging for a while and recharging is refreshing, necessary and very welcome.
I get kind of nostalgic at this time of year too, remembering Christmases which are long gone, and the people who made them special. When I was primary school age, trips into the city centre were a rarity and December 8 was always circled in the family calendar. It is a ‘holy day', we were off school and it was a day to go into town for Christmas shopping. In some ways December 8 sort of kicked off the Christmas season, back then it was the day we got some new clothes, as well a chance to go into the ‘big shops' and buy some small presents of our own for parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
I know that we are all a little prone to putting on rose tinted glasses, but the Belfast of my memory and of my childhood was different than it is today. I'm not thinking of the checkpoints and armed soldiers, or being searched as we entered town at Castle Street, like everyone else I just took all of that in my stride. In fact had I been brought into any other city centre in Dublin or London I would simply have expected the same treatment, that's how kids adapt.
Each year, along with my siblings, I clambered out of a black taxi, put my hand in my mum's and pleaded with her to make Leisureworld on Queen Street, our first stop on the shopping adventure. What a Belfast landmark that shop was. Many days were spent peering in the window or on birthdays or Christmas, wandering around inside trying to pick one toy or gift over another. I can see the layout of Leisureworld in my mind's eye to this day.
Leisureworld is gone now of course, so are Makin' Tracks, Caroline Music and Gardiners Bookshop, Belfast shops of the past. I'm glad that our city still clings to some independence in our retail offer, even if you have to venture off the beaten track somewhat to find such outlets. These days I love browsing in No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue, or in some of the craft shops like Studio Souk and Utopia.
We have plenty of choice too for sports shops, clothing outlets and independent art galleries to sit alongside the marquee shopping centres at Castlecourt and Victoria Square. It is vital, as championed by the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, that we retain a mixture of high street brands and independent outlets, if we are to thrive as a city with its own identity.
Nowadays my own kids love going into town to visit the Christmas market, to eat and to make their own fun with pals. That's their version of my traipsing around record shops. And while it is different, they are building their own loyalty to the city, which is a pleasure to see. And they are already discovering the offerings of Belfast hostelries.
My dad ran a bar on the Grosvenor Road in west Belfast, and Christmas was always the briskest period of the year, with St Stephen's Day the busiest of all. It was all hands on deck for me and brothers and sister, from an early age, and while it was a hard way for a family to make a living, at times it was glorious.
My dad's respite from work lay in family and in reading, newspapers and books. His birthday fell in the week before Christmas so of course presents tended to be doubled up and he delighted in posting a book list onto the fridge door each December, a lengthy list of titles covering horse racing, GAA, politics and cinema history, all devoured quickly and usually after coming home from another day behind the bar. There hasn't been such a book list now in 14 years, but the gap on the fridge never gets any smaller.
Most of us will be in a bar, a hotel or a restaurant between now and December 25. We should keep in mind the long shifts of the staff, the front line workers who are driving our successful hospitality sector. Be patient, say thanks, and keep in mind they have probably been working for hours.
The pubs of Belfast have changed over the years, some have ridiculous names these days but that's okay. Many survived, just about, the darkest of our recent days.
Let's enjoy this period, look ahead to a more politically productive 2020 and take stock of whatever good fortune has fallen our way. And if you are in a pub this Christmas, raise a glass to those who poured it, and to those who raised us. Happy Christmas.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at communications consultancy MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Twitter: @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken