It's Christmas time and, as the song goes, there's no need to be afraid. But many men are. First of all there's the perennial problem of deciding what to buy the wives and girlfriends for Christmas. It has to be something beautiful but also practical. Something special that they'll love, and that says 'I love you'. It's a tricky choice but the one thing that fits all these criteria is also one of the scariest things to buy - lingerie.
The sight of men looking lost in a lingerie department is so notoriously comic it was famously parodied in Father Ted's Christmas special. Every man has known that blind panic, that sense of bewilderment and the sweating, shifty behaviour brought on by being in a predominantly female environment surrounded by lacy bras and pants.
But it's all set to change. Two men in Marks & Spencer's Donegall Place store in Belfast are leading a little Christmas miracle in the lingerie section. Meet Ciaran Doyle (20) and Christopher Close (20), M&S's 'stocking fellas' - and from stockings to bras, nighties and pants they're helping male (and some female) customers brave the bras and get over their underwear fears.
"Some men don't like the idea of going up to the counter with lingerie in front of a queue of women," explains Ciaran. "They don't like standing out in an all female environment and they also feel embarrassed talking to a woman about buying underwear."
It's a scenario both young men were familiar with before their rigorous induction into the frillier side of retail. "I was a bit nervous the first day," recalls Ciaran. " I think any fella would be a bit apprehensive and in the past I don't think I would have bought lingerie for my girlfriend. But I would now."
Christopher agrees: "I definitely would have felt awkward going into the women's lingerie department but if there had been a man there to help, like we are, I would have felt more comfortable."
Picking up on this insecurity is paying off and after a bit of help from the stocking fellas, satisfied male customers have been leaving the shop with armfuls of carefully considered lingerie purchases guaranteed to please their better halves and hopefully result in a very merry Christmas.
The stocking fella service started on December 10 and runs until Christmas Eve and the fellas estimate they're helping a couple of hundred customers every day. "We stay with them and even run the purchase through the till ourselves in the menswear department if that makes them feel more comfortable with it," says Christopher. "Some come straight up and ask for help but you can spot men needing help a mile off - they're twirling round on the spot looking embarrassed."
The stocking fella's job is to glean information on the size, style and age of the woman set to be on the receiving end of the gift.
"We got really good training from the manager in the lingerie department who talked us through all different brands and types and what age group is better suited to what and what age of man is more likely to like what," explains Christopher. "But," he adds "you can never judge a book by its cover. The 20-30-year-olds typically buy the sexier styles in vibrant colours while the Autograph range caters more for older women, but I've had 60 and 70-year-old men come in knowing exactly what they want and telling me they want something sexier than what I've originally shown them."
The customer is always right, even (as has happened on one occasion) when it becomes evident the lingerie purchase is for the personal use of the male customer.
Given the success of their service, the two gents could be forgiven for basque-ing in their own glory but they admit their quest to provide women with better chosen undergarments did initially incur a bit of stick.
"I was working down in food when someone came up to me and said I'd to 'go and see Lisa (the manager) in lingerie'," recalls Ciaran. "The next thing I know I'm standing in a booth that says Guys Need Help. My mates have given me a bit of banter and I've heard every joke there is about 'getting into ladies underwear' but some of my mates think it sounds like the best job in the world, even if it's obviously not the most masculine."
Christopher agrees - "it's put us both more in touch with our feminine side" - but a post work schedule of pints and football is firmly in place to ensure a healthy balance is maintained.
Both lads assert that there's no bad time in a relationship to buy a girlfriend lingerie. "In some ways there's still almost a mini taboo when it comes to buying lingerie," says Christopher. "But I don't think you can buy it too soon in a relationship so long as it's the right thing you're buying in terms of style and size. That said, if you've only just met a woman and the next day you're buying her lingerie it might be a bit much. Apart from that ? "
And once men get over their initial fear of finding themselves surrounded by pants and bras they're keen to get more hands on with the whole process. "I've had men come in for help on buying lingerie and then seen them back buying more a couple of days later," says Christopher.
"A lot of men are used to women buying lingerie and looking good in it and it's not really a process they're involved in. But as soon as I start showing them products they get more sure of what they're looking for. The important thing is to make sure he's getting the balance right between what he wants to buy and what the woman is likely to want to wear."
Sports bras aren't popular. " It's always the more dressy stuff," says Ciaran. "The bestsellers are from the TV campaign - the Autograph and Ceriso range. A lot of men ask what product it is they've seen on TV - they know that it might not make their girlfriend look exactly like the model on TV (the depressingly sexy Noemie Lenoir) but they still think it will look pretty good."
Once they're started there's no fear of more complex items like basques, says Ciaran. "Generally men have a good idea of how everything works and if not, then they're eager to learn."
Of course, from spending hours in the department, Ciaran and Christopher have settled upon their own personal favourites. "The purple set from the Autograph range, " they both decide with Christopher adding a close runner-up contender in red and black from the Ceriso range.
But the biggest thing that men need to realise is - size matters. "Without the right sizes there's not a lot we can do," says Ciaran. "But it's also become clear that a lot of women don't know what size they are so we've had men dragging their girlfriends in to get measured," adds Christopher.
It's evident the stocking fellas are keen to do their job well. "I get a lot of satisfaction from the job," says Christopher. "And the customers are really grateful. I've had men shaking my hand and thanking me."
But what happens in the lingerie department stays in the lingerie department.
For although the men Ciaran and Christopher meet have laughed and joked with them while studying a wealth of ladies garments, the stocking fellas say it's a different case once they're out of the department. "I seen men that I've helped buy lingerie later on in menswear and they've ignored me, especially if they are with their partner I can see them looking at me thinking 'don't say anything'."
Still, it's a job they wouldn't mind staying in.
"It's a pity in some ways that it only runs until Christmas Eve because men don't just want to buy lingerie at Christmas," says Christopher.
" Trade booms at Christmas but there's also birthdays and Valentine's Day.
"It would be nice if there was someone in store even for a few hours at different times of the year."
"It's been a good learning experience and socially it's great craic," says Ciaran.
" I wouldn't need to be asked twice to do it again."
The only time the men say they might have to draw the line is if either one of their dads came in seeking advice.
"It would just give me a mental image that seems wrong," says Christopher, shaking his head.
Find the 'stocking fellas' in Marks & Spencer's stores at Donegall Place, Belfast, and at Sprucefield