Belfast Christmas market's return offers plenty of festive cheer
Defiant traders set out their stalls one year on from city flag protests
Unlike the still-absent Union flag, the ghost of Christmas past hung over Belfast City Hall at the opening of its festive market at the weekend.
But there was no sign of Scrooge as thousands of people exorcised the demons and the nightmares of last year's protest chaos to bring a smile back to Belfast whose First Citizen even had a touch of the Justin Biebers about him.
On Saturday the only flag flying inside the City Hall grounds was one of defiance as traders from 32 different countries set out their stalls for the popular market even though some of them had initially been wary of returning after the loyalist demonstrations over the restrictions on the flying of the Union flag in 2012 led to violence.
The trouble scared away tens of thousands of shoppers and scarred the city's reputation, hitting traders and shops in the hub of the city heavily in the pocket to the tune of millions of pounds.
But long before the gates opened this year, 450 people were queuing around the block for a slice of the pizzas, wild boar, kangaroo and the other exotic gourmet food on offer from right around the world.
And the tills didn't stop jingling even after 40 loyalists gathered outside to protest as they do every week over the removal of the flag. They say it is the symbol of their Britishness, and deny that their small numbers showed that support for the controversial issue was itself flagging.
All around them the heart of Belfast was beating again and the expensive Backin' Belfast campaign sparked by last year's crisis was all but a distant memory.
Optimistic market organisers predicted that they would have record visitor figures which they believe might even top a million for the first time. Allan Hartwell (right), from the Market Place Europe firm which runs the continental market said: "We hope last year is well and truly behind us. No-one who was here 12 months ago has refused to come back.
"Belfast is one of the top 10 markets in Europe now and people love it because there is so much diversity in terms of food and clothes."
Mr Hartwell was hailed a hero for holding his nerve with the market by Belfast's Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, who sported an outlandish festive sweater made by Lisa McBride's Ugly Christmas Jumper company whose customised yellow studded baseball cap was worn by singer Justin Bieber after a concert in Dublin last year.
Lisa, a former freelance TV and theatrical costume designer won a competition to get a free stall at the market and is confident of selling at least 1,000 of her kitsch jumpers which retail at between £25 and £40 a pop.
The Lord Mayor said the return of the re-invigorated market was proof that Belfast was buzzing.
"We are on a roll and I believe we are going to have our best ever Christmas in the market and outside it. If people want to protest they can and should be able to do that. I was at the White House in Washington last week and there were demonstrators outside it and that happens every day of the year.
"It's what democracy is all about."
Mr O Muilleoir, who helped bestow the freedom of Belfast on Van Morrison the night before, jokingly said the singing superstar would be welcome to pop into the market for a bite to eat.
A total of 96 traders have stalls at the market and nearly a third of them are from Northern Ireland.
They're all saying publicly that they're hoping that the black Christmas of 2012 will be replaced by a brighter one this time around.
But many of them are privately fearful of what the imminent anniversary of the council's vote to ban the flag will bring in its wake.
One of the European traders is actually from Belfast. Patrick McCrory lives in France and brings his Presents from Provence stall home every year. He had no qualms about returning.
"The first two weeks last year were excellent but after the protest started our takings were poor, but I had no reservations about coming back – I grew up here and I know the situation," Patrick said.
Virginie Liron-pean from Deauville in Normandy, who's in Belfast for a third year to sell French clothes, had no idea why protesters were demonstrating 12 months ago.
"I just kept smiling and kept working. I am happy to be back," she said.
Peggy de Saint Jorre, a veteran of nine Belfast markets with her Taste of France baking was equally baffled about what was going on the streets last year.
"My English isn't good enough to understand it but it did affect my business.
"However I didn't think about staying away. People in Belfast are always nice to me."
It took three days by ferry and road for Paul Makela to get from Finland to Belfast with his JM company's clothes, but he said he thinks it will have been worth the trek, despite the trouble last year – his first visit.
"A few people make trouble everywhere, but overall Belfast is a very friendly place and that is the reason why we are here again plus there's lots of Finnish people living here so we are a meeting place for them too."
Even Santa was hit by last year's agitation. The number of children visiting his grotto in the market was drastically reduced as frightened parents decided to keep them away, with a devastating knock-on impact on profits for the Barnardo's organisation, which was former Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson's chosen charity.
Because of the drop-off in its takings, Mr O Muilleoir nominated Barnardo's again this year and Niamh Quinn from the charity said it was hoped that they would receive around £13,000.
Just before the market opened, traders observed a minute's silence for a long-term colleague who should have been back in Belfast but who died recently. Dawn Bardgett from Yorkshire sold Indian goods to raise money for orphanages in Asia where she lived for a time.
The first people through the gates were friends Matthew McGinley and Laura Walker from Lisburn.
Laura said: "I love the atmosphere and the strawberry beer."
Matthew added: "I think the market is fantastic. I wouldn't miss it and my favourite purchase is the mulled wine."
Last year an element among the loyalists – Billy Boys turned Bully Boys – were caught on camera urging supporters to help shut the market, but on Saturday the protesters, who included on-remand DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, stood quietly on the pavement watched by six PSNI officers.
Mrs Patterson wouldn't comment on her presence, but the chairman of the South Antrim branch of the TUV Albert Steele wasn't quite so taciturn.
He said: "We aren't giving up on the protest. No matter what republicans say about wanting to live in peace and harmony with us they are still at war with Protestants and they're trying to neutralise our identity and heritage."
One woman said: "I know the crowds aren't as big as they were last year but we won't go away even though our MLAs are doing nothing for us."
The loyalists dispersed after an hour but vowed to be back.They said that in a fortnight's time they expect 5,000 demonstrators to gather at the City Hall at the start of a march to mark the first anniversary of the council's decision to stop flying the Union flag every day.
The Parades Commission is to rule on the march tomorrow and it's already deemed it sensitive.
If the parade gets the go-ahead, market officials are hopeful that they won't have to repeat last year's temporary shutdown.
"I don't think it will come to that," said one cautious trader.
"That really would make for a happy Christmas."
Peppa Pig thrills crowds at switch-on
Peppa Pig and her little brother George brought thousands of parents and excited offspring into Belfast city centre for this year's Christmas lights switch on.
Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir was bringing home the bacon as he joined the children's favourite on stage to switch on the tree's lights against a backdrop of a multi-coloured City Hall.
Newly installed LED lights turned the city hall into a rainbow of lights ahead of the big switch-on.
Marking the beginning of the festive campaign Cool FM's Pete Snodden and Channel 5's Milkshake Kids' presenters hosted a lineup of fun.
Action included performances from the cast of Peter Corry's The Music Box: A Christmas Extravaganza and performance from Jeff Anderson of ITV's Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Belfast Operatic Society sang a song from their show, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
Not to be upstaged May McFettridge guided Cinderella, hotly pursued by her ugly sisters, on to the stage, from their new home at the Grand Opera House.
Earlier in the day hundreds of boys and girls had waited to watch Santa make his way through the city centre on route to his grotto in CastleCourt.
The night also marked the official opening of the continental market, which has attracted more than 700,000 visitors in recent years.
Around 10,000 tickets were in hot demand for the free event, with some Belfast City councillors raffling off their tickets.
Former Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile tweeted during the event: "Got a text from the clann who won the raffle on my Facebook for my Peppa Pig tickets. Sounds like they had a great night!"
Belfast was buzzing all weekend as the night before 2,000 people enjoyed a free gig by Van Morrison.