Why popping the question at Christmas can prove to be perfect present
With Christmas Eve declared the most popular proposal day, writer Deirdre Reynolds gets some expert tips on making the moment fantastic for both of you
Move over, Cupid - now it's Santa who's spreading the love. According to figures from Facebook, Christmas Eve is the biggest day of the year for popping the question, out-blinging even St Valentine's Day for betrothals.
From twinkling lights, to dangling mistletoe, not to mention all that mulled wine, wedding expert Sinead Nic Gabhann reckons it's no surprise that December 24 has overtaken February 14 as the most romantic date in the calendar, and is already bracing for the snowstorm of Facebook engagement announcements later this month.
"We have been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, since May. And we will be working Christmas Eve and Christmas Day too," says Sinead, who runs popular social networking group for brides and grooms-to-be.
"A lot of people meet at Christmas time, so it can be nice for them to get engaged at Christmas time too.
"Even though it can be a very busy time of year, people just have more time to think," she adds. "They're kind of winding down from work and thinking more about their home life.
"If someone is planning to propose anyway, they might decide to save it for Christmas morning - it's the ultimate present, really." After dropping her 16-month-old son back to Hospital last Christmas Day, getting married was the last thing on Karen Sherry's mind - until her partner Paul got down on one knee in a surprise proposal.
"Our little guy, Sonny, who has a tracheostomy, was in hospital at the time," tells the stay-at-home mum. "On Christmas Day, we were allowed to bring him home for a few hours for the first time.
"I was an emotional wreck dropping him back at six o'clock.
"On the way home, Paul said he wanted to go out for a drive. We were walking up the pier and it was freezing.
"Halfway up I was like, 'This is ridiculous - I'm going back to the car. He had to get down on one knee and ask me then.
"I wasn't expecting it at all," continues Karen, "but I wouldn't have wanted any other proposal.
"Paul even had a gorgeous vintage ring from the Seventies. It really was a brilliant end to a day that could have been a lot different."
While most couples here now shop for a rock together, according to one of the province's top jewellers, Christmas also sees a rise in guys emulating the man in the red suit.
Suzanne Lunn, of Lunn's Jewellers, which has shops in Belfast and Londonderry, says sales of diamond engagement rings sky rocket in the run-up to Christmas. And it seems the Northern Irish male is fearless about doing the asking.
"A quarter of our sales (of rings) at this time of the year, are men buying rings for a marriage proposal," she says, adding a pear-cut diamond or four-stone ring, is proving most popular with brides-to-be.
The average UK spend on a sparkler is just under £2,000, depending on what the man earns. Diamond firm De Beers famously said a man should spend two months salary on an engagement, while most agree a month's wage is a good indicator of how much cash you should splash.
So what's the reason why so many chaps go down on bended knee at Christmas?
Suzanne says men like popping the question in the festive season, as it is a time for families and getting together: "Christmas is romantic and it is the perfect time to propose and then see your family and tell them the good news. We are seeing more men than ever coming in to choose the engagement ring themselves. They know what their other half wants, and their taste in jewellery. The rise in social media also means it is easier for women to hint at what they like."
She adds that men here have become very confident about choosing a ring that will please the special woman in their lives: "It's all about knowing someone's taste and their lifestyle and, of course, we can help a man pick the right ring for his wife-to-be. Our rings range in cost from £595 upwards, as we want them to be affordable."
Suzanne says when it comes to a love match, it is up to the person what constitutes enough of a spend.
And to help nervous guys trembling at the thought of setting up the perfect proposal, help is at hand.
Propose2me has helped smooth the path to the altar for many men in Northern Ireland. The agency, which is Ireland's only marriage proposal planner, is run by Arlene Keenan, who says her team will travel anywhere to provide a "magical proposal" and the skies the limit when it comes to creating a winning scene.
"Many grooms-to-be want to ask for their ladies hand in marriage in Belfast's Merchant Hotel, so we can provide the rooftop terrace for a private proposal with pictures taken to capture that special moment. Another popular place is St Stephen's Green in Dublin," says Arlene.
The marriage proposal planners can decorate luxury hotel rooms, supplying 12 long-stemmed red roses, while the bed is festooned in rose petals. Meanwhile, candles and tealights add to the breath-taking effect, along with a bottle of bubbly, so you're ready to celebrate when she says 'yes'.
And bridal shop owner Bernie O'Neill, who runs Perfect Day in Lurgan, agrees Christmas is a busy time: "Our diary has already started to fill up with appointments, and after Boxing Day, the Christmas proposals start to come.
"If you want to get married next year, you need to get organised now, and the dress is the first thing brides want to buy, with the average spend here £1,200-£1,800."
When it comes to festive proposals, romantic Marshall Kingston certainly went jingle all the way.
The marketing executive spent almost a year planning a Christmas treasure hunt for his girlfriend, Jilly, who is now, unsurprisingly, his wife.
"Jilly and I were together about seven years when we got engaged," he recalls of popping the question with panache five years ago this Christmas.
"I just thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit a lot of the spots we had visited together over the years in a kind of homage to the relationship.
"The first clue was printed on the inside of a packet of Rolos, which led to important places during our courtship. The second last one led to my car.
"On the seat of my car was a photo of a tree that we had carved our names into years before," he explains. "I had arranged for the whole place to be covered in white roses and candles and fairy lights.
"So we drove out there, where I nervously popped the question. Jilly was gobsmacked - and it's a cool story to have as well."
Nonetheless, marriage proposal planner Arlene says while they can set the stage in a grand setting, such as a five-star hotel, there is simpler option - what could be nicer than a romanic picnic in the couple's favourite park, or anywhere else that has meaning to them.
Admitting his lavish proposal was something of a logistical Nightmare Before Christmas, Marshall agrees, and proposes enlisting an army of helpers - little or otherwise.
"It was actually one of the most stressful days of my life," he laughs. "There was a lot of organisation. I had two of my great friends helping me in the background.
"I'd say not to do anything too complicated. I think you want to be able to focus on the person and enjoy it yourself.
"If you're going to do something, definitely get help from friends. I couldn't have done it without them."
Despite being surrounded by family and friends over the festive season, meanwhile, the experts say it's best to pop the question when you're alone - just in case she says ho-ho-no.
"I think do it when it's just the two of you, as opposed to in a room full of people, because it can be a bit too much pressure," Sinead advises. "Then you have a bit of time to yourselves to reflect on it and can announce it to everyone together.
"But try to maybe have it somewhere you can get a photo, so it's kind of private but you have the moment captured."
Although her engagement didn't exactly go without a hitch, bride-to-be Karen says she wouldn't change a thing.
"I loved that there was nowhere other to go than home," she says. "Instead, we just went home and had a glass of champagne and just chilled out and rang everybody.
"We're getting married on New Year's Eve and I can't wait," she adds. "All the Christmas lights and the Christmas trees and the candles - it's going to be absolutely gorgeous."