Give me a slice of Veda over this overpriced tat any day
There's no doubting the beauty and magic of the great European Christmas markets, many of which reach back centuries.
In Vienna's Christkindlmarkt, the music of Mozart, Strauss and Schubert mingles with the bewitching scents of baking gingerbread and roasted chestnuts.
In Dresden, regional craftsmen offer all kinds of handmade curiosities, from delicate glass baubles to painted ceramics. Children, red-nosed from the cold, gaze in wonder at the piles of colourful toys, lollipops and sweetmeats.
Not to be outdone, Belfast has its own Christmas market. But let's be honest — it bears as much similarity to Vienna, Cologne, Brussels or Dresden as McDonalds does to Paul Rankin’s. World-class, it ain't.
Essentially, our market is a huddle of wooden shacks outside City Hall, a tackier version of Smithfield circa 1952. But at least Smithfield was real.
This is just a commercial confection — and a highly expensive one at that. Instead of the traditional Christmassy scents of cinnamon, orange and cloves floating in the frosty night air, you're more likely to be hit smack up the gub with a blast of grease-laden smoke from a fast-food stall.
The only red noses you'll see are on plastic reindeer, or on the hammered boozers lurching out of the beer tents after one too many German ales.
The city's publicans are left to deal with the after-effects: Willie Jack, owner of the Duke of York, in the Cathedral Quarter, says that, when the market closes at night, “large crowds of revellers stagger round to our area and they can be quite a handful”.
Meanwhile, some shopowners look on in dismay as they see crowds of people trooping into the market, spending their cash, turning round and heading home again. Willie Jack thinks that the council should give established businesses free rates for the four weeks that the market is on.
Yes, the stalls offer gluhwein, bratwurst, waffles — but let's not fool ourselves that we are getting any kind of genuine authenticity here.
We are being flogged some canny marketeer's idea of the European market experience, a bland, bastardised version of the original — and all in the name of exotic sophistication.
If you're happy to pay well over three quid for a limp square of apple strudel, or a couple of thin pieces of sweaty, shrink-wrapped cheese, be my guest. (Some people think having a Chinese meal is exotic if they go beyond a curry chip.) But I'd swap you an entire patisserie stall of sad-looking cakes at the Christmas market for one piece of hot, toasted, well-buttered Veda.
I did have to laugh when I heard one market trader being interviewed on local radio. “So what brings you back to Belfast, year after year?” cooed the reporter, obviously hoping that the trader would respond with some seasonal good cheer and a few well-judged compliments about the city.
No chance. “Business,” he replied abruptly, in a guttural German accent. “Business is what keeps me coming back.” At least he was being honest and not romancing us with some guff about smiling Irish eyes.
There's no doubt that the continental market is enormously popular. You can hardly move for eager shoppers browsing the stalls.
In fairness, too, there has been some attempt to involve local businesses — 30% of the traders are from Belfast and Northern Ireland and craft stalls pay lower rates than fast-food joints.
I confess, the one stand that really tempted me in the Christmas market was Rocket and Relish, the local gourmet burger outfit. You just cannot beat the dirty charms of a well-made burger. But I think we can do better, much better, than this. Why do we always assume that other cities and their attributes are superior and thus more desirable?
Instead of importing an identikit ‘foreign' market — which looks, sounds and smells exactly like all the other ones that pop up across the UK — the Christmas market at City Hall could be an opportunity to showcase what we do best, here in Northern Ireland.
If we want real authenticity, why not show the world our own? Whether it's organic pork sausages — so good you can almost taste the oink — carrot cake to die for, or lip-smacking Armagh cider; whether it's woven Irish linen scarves, beeswax candles or exquisite handmade jewellery, the truth is we have it all already and at a fraction of the price.
Now wouldn't you rather have that than an ostrich burger and an over-priced cup of luke-warm mulled wine?