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Belfast's biggest ever Christmas market shows charity side as warm hearts overcome the winter chill

Young Ulster cancer victims and residents of African village to benefit from Belfast's seasonal offering

By Ivan Little

Published 21/11/2016

The packed Christmas market at City Hall
The packed Christmas market at City Hall
Jeff Quignon at his stall
Polly and Bonnie Smyth at Santa’s Grotto
Krzysztof Golinski
Andrew and Laura Henshaw
King Madzima
Rita Smyth and Rose Cunning
Samantha and Tracey Williamson
The Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall which were switched on by Cool FM’s Pete Snodden and Rebecca McKinney on Saturday
The Christmas lights at Belfast City Hall which were switched on by Cool FM’s Pete Snodden and Rebecca McKinney on Saturday

Young Ulster cancer victims and residents of an impoverished village in Africa are benefiting from the proceeds of Belfast's newly-expanded Christmas market at the City Hall.

The annual festive favourite has already been visited by thousands of early Yuletide revellers since opening on Saturday.

And despite Brexit, traders from Europe - and further afield - have voted to remain in Belfast for the duration of the month-long market which has a specially-designed Santa's grotto that cancer charity officials hope will boost their festive fundraising to record levels this year.

As Father Christmas - who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bangor strongman Glenn Ross - handed out presents to eager youngsters, Jacqueline Wilkinson, the executive director of The Children's Cancer Unit Charity said: "We've had fantastic support from sponsors and from the public and the money we get will allow us to bring even more comfort to children suffering from cancer in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children."

Not far away, King Madzima from the bizarrely-named village of WrongTime in Zimbabwe said he was confident that Christmas in Belfast would be the right time for him to help people back home. The ever-smiling King was selling pieces of jewellery and trinkets fashioned from all sorts of things, including forks, spoons and bottle tops.

He said: "They have all been made by people in my village and nothing goes to waste.

"The money we have raised in the past has bought vital machinery like generators and I now want to get equipment to drill for new supplies of water. We would also like a new centre which could keep our young people off our streets."

Also back again are nuns from a convent in Minsk, who've swapped Belarus for Belfast for the past nine Christmases to sell traditional handmade goods to finance their charitable work in their own country, where they care for sick people of all ages.

On Saturday, long before the market even opened, hundreds of people were queuing around the block in freezing temperatures which brought a whole new meaning to the phrase Blue Christmas.

"I think it's not so much the continental market, more the conti-mental market," said Bill Elliott from Dundonald as he walked briskly past the queue on his way to warm up with an Irish whiskey.

The first people at the gates were Rita Smyth and Rose Cunning from Limavady, who wanted to ensure they got an early taste of what was on offer at the market.

"We come down every year," said Rita. "It's a magical day out and I get my Christmas decorations - and my fudge - here." Said Rose: "I wouldn't miss the market. The atmosphere is special."

Shivering behind them were mother and daughter Tracey and Samantha Williamson from Sion Mills in Co Tyrone.

"We travelled to Belfast last night and we stayed over," said Tracey. I've been before and I loved it, but this year I wanted Samantha, who's heard me raving about the market, to see it for herself."

Other visitors had even come from Galway and Tipperary for a weekend planned around a visit to the City Hall.

Mind you, the market is almost unrecognisable from its first year in Belfast in 2004, when there were just 30 stalls.

That figure now stands at over 100, with the addition of 20 new chalets just outside the City Hall.

The operators, Market Place, who have just been awarded a new three-year contract by Belfast City Council, have invested over £200,000 on improvements.

And the firm's managing director Allan Hartfield said the market had deservedly earned its position in the top 10 of similar fairs in Europe.

He added: "Belfast isn't the biggest market by any means, but it is hard to beat in terms of enthusiasm and that's down to the people, who have embraced it since day one and who appear to love what we do.

"And I also love Belfast. The market is like my baby and it's definitely punching above its weight," said Mr Hartwell.

He added: "The installation of the new chalets along the exterior perimeter of the City Hall has not only increased the opportunities for local traders, but it has also enhanced the visual impact of the market.

"A lot of people always said the look of the market was hampered because people could only see the back of the chalets inside the City Hall grounds. Now it is definitely more outward looking."

Traders from no fewer than 32 different countries are selling their wares at the market.

And it's a real European union if ever there was one, with pancakes from Holland, crepes from France, paellas from Spain and souvlakia from Greece. And they're just the dishes that I sampled, ensuring that it wasn't just the market that was getting bigger, but also my waistline.

A dish too far was the highly calorific but immensely popular Hungarian chimney, a cake which has come to the Belfast market from eastern Europe via Canada.

The owners of the famous North Belfast ice cream company, Rossi's, discovered the chimneys - or kurtoskaslacs - on a holiday in Toronto and decided to bring them home.

Anita McCann, who was making stacks of chimneys, said: "They're like donuts really and we cover them with cinnamon sugar and fill them with our ice cream and different fillings like forest fruits, fudge or honeycomb. They cost a fiver, but they're for sharing"

Anita didn't know exactly how many calories were in the chimneys, but Father Christmas joked that if he scoffed too many of them he wouldn't be able to get down too many more regular chimneys on his rounds next month.

However, he should be well-groomed if he seeks advice from a newcomer to the Christmas market, the Belfast Beard Company, who sell beard oils, beard balms, moustache waxes and beard combs to the growing number of beard growers.

This beardy was left feeling like the possessor of a five o'clock shadow during a chinwag with the bushy-bearded proprietor of the company, Andrew Henshaw, who insisted his wife Laura was the 'mane' mover behind the firm.

"We are at St George's Market on a Friday and we were chuffed when we won a competition called Pitch Perfect for new businesses to get a stall here," said Laura, who's expecting her first child.

One major eye-catching change in the layout of the market has been the move by the Dutch Flowers on Tour company and their exotic range of flowers and plants to the very centre of the City Hall grounds.

Manning the stall was Krzysztof Golinski from Poland, who said: "We bring thousands of plants over from Holland in a huge truck and we bring new ones over every week. They are really popular with people in Northern Ireland"

Belfast is just as big a hit with the staff on Le Petit Gascon stall as their French bread and cakes are with their customers.

Jeff Quignon from Toulouse said: "We have been coming here for six years and there are people back home who can't wait to visit Belfast every year to help us with our baking. It's hard work, but they all love their time away from the market too."

In the past, traders from the Victorian St George's Market a quarter of mile away from the City Hall have cried foul over the competition just up the street.

But Market Place said that 35% of the traders were local, with a special emphasis this time around on Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink 2016.

It's also been claimed that the gross economic impact from the Christmas market two years ago was around £56m - a far cry from the Christmas of 2012 when the market had to close temporarily after 2,000 loyalists took part in the flag protest outside the City Hall.

On Saturday, it appeared that the ghost of that particularly unhappy Christmas past had been well and truly laid to rest.

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