Belfast plays host to all kinds this Christmas – including the homeless

Shoppers in Belfast city centre
Shoppers in Belfast city centre

Belfast at Christmas is a lovely place to shop, even in the rain.

The main thoroughfare was crowded on the day I visited this week. Fathers were carrying children on their shoulders – no danger of them getting trampled underfoot – groups of what looked like staff were heading to their office Christmas lunch, couples were gazing in jewellery shop windows and little old ladies who probably don’t venture into the city at any other time of the year were determinedly marching along – some with walking sticks – probably buying presents for the grandchildren since many of them had been in the Disney shop.

Sandra Chapman

Sandra Chapman

In a doorway an eastern European was playing something that resembled a violin but wasn’t. Despite the screechy, wailing sound it produced people were generously throwing coins into a hat at his feet.

Other foreign types were simply holding a hand out for contributions offering nothing in return. And then there was the empty shop front entrance, the chosen place for a homeless person – I couldn’t see a face – wrapped up in a sleeping bag, out for the count. It’s no longer an unfamiliar sight in our city.

There was no shortage of people selling the Big Issue. My intention was to do some shopping but gave up in the first three stores because of long queues at the tills. So Himself will be without his John Rocha socks this Christmas. The big stores obviously weren’t too bothered about keeping people waiting to pay. Maybe people don’t mind queueing at Christmas. Unfortunately I’m a person, who believes that in a land of plenty no one should have to queue for anything, even at Christmas. This is not Russia.

Still, I’m not complaining. Belfast today is a modern, vibrant city. At Christmas in particular it’s a very different place to what it was in the 1970s when the IRA were blowing the place up and when soldiers searched us at barricades before we were allowed into the centre.

Finding a coffee shop then was nearly impossible unless you were prepared to walk towards the university area. It was a no-go area at night, even at Christmas. The city centre is now full of places where you can take a break from shopping and enjoy refreshments.

Even that grand old lady, the City Hall, closed and shuttered to the public during the troubled years now welcomes all and sundry to its restaurant where you can also swot up on the city’s history.

I returned home to get the Christmas tree up ready to be decorated the next day. Always a country girl I’ve never preferred the artificial type to the real thing but this year left me refusing to rule out other options in future.

We don’t do small trees in our house. We get the biggest one we can handle. This year’s was the largest ever even though I had certain doubts about its size.

Having been over-ruled by Himself and the brother from whose garden it was cut down I just knew in my heart this tree wanted to stay where it was. At home it had to have some inches cut off it and like a recalcitrant child it didn’t want to go into the chosen pot. But Himself is very persuasive and the tree, finally stood tall but unhappy at being thwarted.

When it found itself cocooned in a network of lights it decided it was having none of it and like a drunken man swayed ominously towards me as I reached for the box of glass balls. So there I was, holding up a tree which didn’t want anything to do with me, Himself somewhere out in the garage unable to hear cries for help and a dog becoming hysterical at my plight. I’ve never been in such a pickle in 48 years of putting up a Christmas tree.

By various manoeuvres I was able to reach a chair to stabilise it and get help to put it in the sort of container it should have been in the first place. At last, secure and happier looking, I continued to fill it with baubles collected over nearly five decades of Christmases. I think it sensed the love going into it and has behaved perfectly since.