Belfast is really buzzing in this most magical month
Belfast's Christmas lights switch-on made the headlines for the wrong reasons. But don't be put off, December will be a special time writes Lord Mayor Naomi Long
It's official - the festive season has begun! As our capital city's First Citizen I am so proud to use this platform to declare what a wonderful Christmas Belfast is offering its residents and visitors.
In spite of the disappointing headlines about trouble last week, thankfully the reality is that there is a fantastic atmosphere in the city centre and Belfast continues to be buzzing.
The vast majority of families who turned out to see our Christmas tree lights switch-on last Tuesday enjoyed a fantastic evening of great entertainment.
I, like many of the hundreds of others who attended that event, spent an hour afterwards soaking up the great atmosphere at the Continental Market.
And as this popular tourist attraction in the City Hall grounds continues to be in full swing, it is a sure sign that the countdown to December 25 is well and truly on.
It has been wonderful to mingle with the crowds of shoppers enjoying the variety of stalls.
Last year more than 750,000 people visited the market - and it is proving to be even bigger and better this time around with traders from as far afield as the North Pole, Asia, Africa and the United States, as well as some of our homegrown traders from St George's Market who have also secured space this year.
As well as the vast selection of crafts from around the world there is family entertainment thanks to the Big Wheel and a fabulous new children's carousel.
Santa's very own specially designed grotto is open too with all proceeds this year going to the Council for the Homeless NI.
Of course, shops across Belfast are benefiting from the increased footfall generated by what's happening at City Hall.
Extended opening hours for the city centre outlets are already in operation with CastleCourt, Victoria Square and most larger retailers remaining open to 7pm on Monday and Tuesdays, until 9pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 6pm on Saturdays and from 1pm until 6pm on Sundays.
And the good news is that from next week (December 7-23) those hours will be further extended to 10pm on week nights.
Special arrangements have also been introduced to allow free on-street parking behind City Hall from 4:30pm every day, as well as special parking rates of 50p per hour (and overnight parking from £5) in multi-storey facilities.
Christmas in Belfast is sure to be enjoyed by not only its residents but also by thousands of visitors.
Our Be Festive Campaign is already spreading the message about all that we have to offer - including our unique mix of shops and array of culture, entertainment, nightlife and accommodation. A range of special accommodation offers from as little as £49 per room per night are available on gotobelfast.com
Other highlights of Belfast City Council's Christmas programme include:
* Christmas Fair at St George's Market this Saturday and Sunday (December 5-6), as well as the regular Friday market and additional opening on Tuesday and Wednesday (December 22-23)
* Cinderella, the Belfast Waterfront's pantomime, which runs from now until January 9. Also a Panto at Whiterock Leisure Centre tomorrow (December 2) at 6.30pm.
* Free tours and mince pies at Belfast Castle at 10.30am every Saturday and Sunday in December, withy evening tours available on Monday, December 14 and Tuesday, December 22 at 7.30pm
* Santa's Grotto at Northern Ireland's triple award-winning tourist attraction, Belfast Zoo, over weekends in December
* A food, entertainment, arts & crafts fair at Bank Square from Thursday, December 17 to Sunday, December 20.
Dozens of other events also are taking place at libraries, community centres and other venues, big and small, across the city over the festive period. So, the message is - be part of it, come in and enjoy the festive season with all that Belfast has to offer.
To all residents of Belfast, and further afield, I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas.
Full details of bin collections and opening hours for council amenities over the Christmas holiday period can be found on the Belfast City Council website www.belfastcity.gov.uk