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What makes Christmas so special?

Prominent people tell us their best memories of and favourite parts of the most wonderful time of the year

By Rachel Dean and  Helen Carson

Every family has their own Christmas traditions which make the festive period so special — but how are Northern Ireland’s famous faces spending the big day?

Composer and hymnwriter Keith Getty, from Lisburn, lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife Kristyn, who grew up in Glengormley, and their four daughters, Eliza Joy, Charlotte, Gracie and Tahlia.

He told the Belfast Telegraph he has always been “crazy” about every part of Christmas — and unsurprisingly music is a major aspect for them.

“We love the family occasions, the food and our parents did a great job of building up the excitement of presents — one year they amazingly hid a table tennis table in our garage,” he said.

“For me, though, it was ultimately the music — being involved in productions and all the rehearsals, excitement and after-parties.

“Probably my favourite was the first year Peter Hunter, my schoolteacher, allowed me to write a piece with the school choir. I think that was the moment I really got the composing bug.”

The family always spend Christmas in America.

Keith added: “Family always come over to us — this year my sister Judy and Kristyn’s brother Michael arrived on Friday, which was beyond exciting.

“The girls didn’t know so it was a total surprise to them.

“They came to our final Christmas show at Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville on Friday and then we all went to the Ryman where we were doing a couple of songs at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday.

“We go to church today (Christmas Eve) and then we just have a lazy day where we will FaceTime with the family back home and then turn the phones off and enjoy being together.”

And with music being such a key player in their Christmas, which of the classics is their favourite?

Keith added: “I love the carols — Once In Royal David’s City, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, In the Bleak Midwinter.

“The carols are treasures of our culture. To think of the impact of Once In Royal David’s City written in Northern Ireland by Cecil Frances Alexander (the 200th anniversary of her birth was this year) and how many millions of people have interacted with it. They are deservedly part of our wider culture.

“We also listen to pop — Michael Bublé, Sinatra — and classical including Handel’s Messiah, Corelli Christmas concerto, Vivaldi’s Winter. In a quiet moment I also love to listen to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, but my girls don’t get it.”

BBC Radio Ulster presenter Kim Lenaghan (56) remembers her childhood Christmases being full of family time — and was an extra celebration as her birthday is on Christmas Eve.

The presenter who lives in Belfast with her husband Andrew Jones, broadcasts Kim’s Twinkly Christmas on the big day at 11am.

She said: “My family and I had great Christmases growing up.

“It was all about family time — we’d sit around and play games, listen to festive music and watch all the Christmas specials on TV.

“Also, my birthday is on Christmas Eve and my mum always insisted that I have a party. So, all the kids in the neighbourhood were brought to my house and my poor mum had to manage us all!

“I will always remember the lovely doll I got for Christmas when I was six or seven. I named it Samantha after Samantha from Bewitched — I loved her!”

Now she loves doing the Christmas Day morning show.

“This Christmas Day I’ll be on air again from 11am–1pm on BBC Radio Ulster for my show, Kim’s Twinkly Christmas. I’ll be playing lovely Christmas tunes and receiving texts from listeners, whether it be family mentions or people asking for help with a burnt turkey! I love doing the morning show on Christmas Day, sharing the day with so many people... it’s very festive.

“After the show, I’ll go home, trusting that my husband Andrew has the cooking done, and spend time with him and our two dogs, Ben and Mabel. It’s Mabel’s first Christmas with us — we rescued her a few months ago!”

Being a broadcaster, Kim hears a lot of music, but for her the go-to Christmas classic is Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

“I hear so many different Christmas songs and this just stands alone as the best, for me,” she said.

Her one Christmas wish this year would be for some of Santa’s little helpers to come and unpack for their new home which she moved into eight weeks ago.

After working on Christmas Day, Kim plans to have a family day on Boxing Day.

She said: “I’m going for a very nice champagne brunch and after that I’ll take Ben and Mabel out for a good walk. Later on, we will have Christmas dinner (part two) with my in-laws and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (47) who lives in Belfast with her husband Michael, opts for a very traditional Christmas.

She said: “On Christmas Eve we’ll take our presents to Michael’s parents and then on Christmas morning we go to church. I usually go to my parents’ grave afterwards and we head to my in-laws’ home to spend the day with Michael’s parents, sister and nephew. We all open our presents and then have Christmas dinner.

“By the time the Queen’s Speech is on, we’re usually about ready to have dessert, so are glad of the break.

“Michael’s sister always used to call her friend during the speech and they still do today.

“Then it’s the usual TV and games after a walk with the dog.

“When I get home, I prep for Boxing Day which is when I cook for everyone.”

But for the east Belfast MLA there is nothing in particular she is hoping will be under the tree.

She said: “Honestly, I have nothing I really want. Which is greatly annoying everyone trying to buy for me.

“I usually prefer ‘experiences’ to things — so we get a lot of vouchers and concert tickets which is lovely to look forward to during the year.”

But if she could choose a gift for Mankind/the world, she said: “It’s a bit of a cliché, and a bit cheesy, but given the current turmoil at home and abroad, peace would be my gift”.

Having sang in a choir for many years, Naomi loves Christmas carols and the beauty of the lyrics.

“My favourites are O Holy Night and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

“The words and music just transport you to a different place and capture the true meaning of Christmas.”

Poignantly, though, she says the one thing she misses most about old Christmases is her mum and dad.

“Them not being here is the thing I miss most about old Christmases,” she said.

But while her Christmas Day is very traditional — her Boxing Day is a little more exotic.

“I’ll be having the relatives over and cooking Caribbean food while Michael mixes the cocktails. It’s become our own tradition and is a nice break from turkey and stuffing,” she said.

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