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So, what makes Christmas a truly magical time for us?

Three well-known Northern Ireland personalities tell Stephanie Bell about their experience of the festive period, past and present, and their hopes for the future

Three well-known Northern Ireland personalities tell Stephanie Bell about their experience of the festive period, past and present, and their hopes for the future.

Petra Woolsey (42), marketing director of the family's Beannchor hotel group, which owns the Merchant and Bullitt hotels, is married to Bill (63) and has one daughter, Caoilinn (7), and two stepsons, Conall (32) and Luke (29). She says:

I grew up outside Holywood in a lovely part of Craigavad with three older sisters. We had the picture-perfect childhood Christmas with the whole family round the table in the dining room.

My mum, Rosie Devitt, always makes a big Christmas dinner. It was slightly unorthodox in our house as mum, my sisters and I are all vegetarian. There was no point investing in a big turkey just for one person, so mum would have bought a turkey roast joint from Marks & Spencer for my dad, Irvine.

We always had a very nice veggie option and all the usual trimmings that go with a Christmas dinner.

Mum made everything from scratch and had every conceivable accompaniment such as her own bread sauce and celery white sauce and peas and sprouts and carrots. There was every form of loveliness.

My mum always made Christmas extra-special for us and I have very early memories of sitting in front of a resplendent Christmas tree when I was three or four years old looking at it in bewildered awe. Through my childhood eyes, it was the most magical thing ever.

Mum and dad were incredibly generous and rather than stockings filled with presents, we got pillow cases filled with goodies. Now, I try to create that same magic for my daughter Caoilinn.

Childhood is very fleeting and we spend most of our lives as adults, so I believe we should have as much sparkle and magic as we can.

In our house on Christmas morning there will be snowy footprints left by Santa and a half-eaten mince pie.

This year - as we have done for the last couple of years - we will be spending Christmas at the home of my husband's ex-wife, Linda.

We have a very modern relationship and Linda is a dear friend of mine. We even go on holidays together and also socialise together. Having Christmas at Linda's house allows Bill to be with all of his children on Christmas Day.

This year, Luke and his partner, Zoe, are expecting their first child, and Conall and his partner, Marianne, who have a one-year-old, are also expecting their second child just before Christmas.

With the family constantly evolving, maybe next year the situation could change and they might want to have Christmas in their own homes.

Bill tends to surprise me on Christmas Day and I do the same for him. It is nice to have things to open on Christmas morning and for the last couple of years I have tended to buy him bits and pieces and also book a trip away as a surprise for the spring or the new year. He is very generous and has spoilt me rotten with some lovely gifts.

We are lucky that we can enjoy a family Christmas as we have the most incredible staff and we are absolutely blessed across all of our business to have the most remarkable people working for us.

If Carlsberg could do Christmas then it would be at the Merchant.

It lends itself so well to the festive experience because of its opulence and we go to a lot of trouble decorating it and putting up a 25ft Christmas tree.

We also try to ensure that warm and fuzzy feeling translates to our customers.

The Wellington Memorial Silver Band also plays in seven or eight of our businesses on Christmas Eve in a charity marathon which we sponsor.

We hire a bus and take them round and there is nothing better than hearing a silver band play as Santa Claus himself makes an appearance. It is truly magical.

Trend-setting Belfast hairdressers Paul and Leisa Stafford have again spent the year travelling the world with their team educating and demonstrating. This year Paul was honoured to be named Stylist of the Year by Hair magazine. He also ended 2017 on a high when the Stafford team was asked to produce a headline show at the Alfaparf Hairdresser Awards in November. The show, inspired by the legendary Studio 54 nightclub, drew gasps from the audience and won the Stafford team an unprecedented standing ovation, never seen before at the Irish hair awards. The couple have two children, Joni (16) and Ava (14). Paul, who also writes a column for Weekend magazine, explains what Christmas means to both him and Leisa. He says:

We have both been hairdressing for nearly 35 years, over 20 of those as salon owners, and we've worked together for most of that time, so Christmas for us has always been busy. It did change a little when our daughters came along, but not overly.

We both grew up in west Belfast in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although they were difficult times, Christmas was always seen as a bit of a respite.

Though Leisa and I didn't know each other until we were in our teens, we had similar experiences growing up, especially at Christmas time. We would both have gone to see Santa Claus at the old bank building, which is now Primark, though Leisa preferred the one at the old Co-Op.

For me, looking in the windows at Leisureworld on Queen Street was like looking into Santa's grotto itself. Of course, you couldn't get in unless you were with an adult, though that didn't stop us trying.

I also remember the smell of rotisserie chickens on Castle Street, which always seemed to be even stronger at that time of year.

I remember my dad and me going into town on Christmas Eve to get the last things before Christmas. We'd stop and get a hamburger at Lord Hamills or Hungry Jacks on Wellington Place and sit there watching the last-minute shoppers bustling along.

I lived at the bottom of the Falls Road and could walk into town in a matter of minutes, but it seemed like miles when I was a kid.

I used to envy the people waiting for a black taxi laden down with bags who lived further up the road. It's weird the way that you think whenever you are a kid.

Leisa's mum worked at Marks & Spencer and when we met I remember our first Christmas at her house. They had so many things at the Christmas dinner that I'd never seen - fancy food things, an endless amount of chutneys, biscuits and a strange object called a Yorkshire pudding, which I thought might be a dessert. There were also pigs in blankets, which I'd never heard of. Of course, Leisa was a vegetarian, so her mum would get her special nut roast, whatever that was!

We both left home when we very young. At Christmas I'd go back to Dundalk, where my family had moved to, and Leisa would make the annual return to her local pub, where her friends who'd moved away would congregate on Christmas Eve.

Later, it would be Lavery's bar in Belfast, which for most of our teens and 20s seemed to be the centre of our universe, especially at Christmas time.

When we first opened our salon, we worked so hard in the lead-up to Christmas that we didn't even have time to buy each other Christmas presents, but we would finish early on Christmas Eve and go into town to catch a bit of the festive spirit.

We always ended up in Deane's restaurant, where we'd meet up with old friends and have a few drinks before going home.

In fact, for quite a few years we joined Michael Deane and Kate Smith at their home for Christmas Day, which were the most incredible of all occasions and we've some brilliant memories.

Things have changed since the girls came along. Christmas is all about them and watching them live through the excitement of Santa. Now they are the ones who want to go out to the Christmas market and the various parties. It means Christmas Day has become a sacred day and we will either go out for dinner or I'll cook, though we prefer to go out.

In truth, I've never liked Christmas and Leisa has always loved it, so I've tried to make the most of it because of that. When the girls arrived I warmed to it and with every year I seemed to enjoy it more, probably because it's the time of year to reflect and think about the year, but also because I'm lucky to have an amazing wife and incredible kids who have taught me what Christmas is really about - family ."

Lynda Bryans (55) is a lecturer in journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College. The former UTV presenter is married to Ulster Unionist Party MLA Mike Nesbitt (60) and they live in Castlereagh. They have two sons, Peter (22) and Christopher (20). Lynda says:

My mum Carol, who still loves Christmas, always made it very magical for me and my brother and sister. I remember our tree always had coloured lights and mum still has them rather than the glamorous white ones we have now. Our boys love the coloured lights and love going to granny and granda’s house at Christmas.

I grew up in Carryduff and I remember every Christmas the choir from Carryduff Primary would have sang at the Christmas tree light ceremony at the Spar shopping centre. It was usually the beginning of December and that was the start of Christmas for us then.

My big memorable present as a child was a doll that talked. I wasn’t really into dolls and would usually have preferred a joinery kit as my dad Billy was a joiner but I loved that doll, it was wonderful. Mum and dad tried to keep the magic of Santa alive for as long as possible and in our house no-one was allowed to go downstairs without mum and dad on Christmas morning.

Just seeing our eyes light up made their Christmas.

By the time our boys were growing up we had a family video camera.

We would get it set up and the boys weren’t allowed down the stairs until we were ready to film their reaction as they came into the room.

One year Christopher asked for a bike and we found these two brilliant bikes that looked like Harley-Davidsons and he came into the room and when he saw them he pretended to faint and fell flat on the floor.

He couldn’t believe Santa had brought something quite so incredible.

We always decorated the Christmas tree together and usually got a real tree which I didn’t want to put up too early because it would always look bedraggled by Christmas.

This year, though, now that both boys are living away from home — Christopher is at university in England and Peter is in Australia — I just bought a pre-lit tree.

Both boys are home for Christmas and mum and dad and my sister and her husband and children and grandchildren will all be coming to us.

It will be lovely to have everyone — there will be 14 of us. We will have turkey and ham and all the trimmings. I would happily do without the sprouts but my sister loves them.

I won’t do a starter, just canapés as it makes it easier. We don’t do Christmas pudding. My mum will bring her famous Sherry trifle and my sister will also make a dessert.

The older I get the more I realise I don’t need more stuff and Michael is the same. Michael is a keen gardener and really into growing chillies and has asked for some gardening stuff this year, so I will get him that and a few surprises.

With working so much I have realised that I need some ‘me time’ and so I’ve asked Michael to find me a yarn-spinning course because I quite fancy taking it up as a hobby. I suppose you could say I have given him a bit of a challenge this Christmas!”

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