Lady Mary Peters, Wendy Austin, Noel Thompson and Tiffany Brien on why they can't wait to share Christmas with their families and friends
Four of NI's best-known figures tell Stephanie Bell how Christmas always brings back special memories of childhood and why this year has been significant for them.
Lady Mary Peters: ‘Being given the Most Noble Order of the Garter was mind-boggling’
For someone who has achieved as much as Lady Mary Peters it is quite something when she describes 2019 as the most amazing year of her life. She started the year still in recovery from major heart surgery in October 2018 and then, as 2019 dawned, in her own words: "It just exploded."
Joy after joy marked her 80th year and it is with a heart full of gratitude that one of our biggest sporting heroines looks forward to Christmas this year.
Highlights included a special 80th birthday bash at Titanic attended by more than 200 people including many sports stars and young people Mary has helped through her charity.
She also launched her inspirational book this year - Passing the Torch.
But by far the biggest highlight for Mary was becoming the first sportsperson to receive the oldest and highest honour of chivalry in the honours system when she was installed as a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
She officially became a Lady Companion of the Order at a private investiture by the Queen at Windsor Castle attended by her brother John, his daughter Vanessa and her husband Grant - all three of whom travelled from Australia to be with her.
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"I had open heart surgery in October 2018 and from then until Christmas it was a slow burn recovering from it," Mary says. "My first outing was a big fundraiser the week before Christmas and it was lovely, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
"Then in the New Year it just exploded and it became the most amazing year of my life.
"In February I got a phone call from Buckingham Palace to say that I was being given the Order of the Garter. I had no idea of its significance and had to Google it - and it was mind-blowing.
"I was invested at Windsor Castle in June along with Lord Salisbury, the King of Spain and the King of the Netherlands.
"It was very private and then we had lunch with the royals who are members of the Order. We walked through the grounds of Windsor Castle to St George's Church where I now have my own stall with my heraldic flag which I had to design myself.
"It is mind-boggling that it has happened to someone like me."
It was the latest in a long list of honours bestowed on our local "Golden Girl" since winning pentathlon gold at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Mary was honoured with an MBE in 1973, a CBE in 1990, became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 2000 and Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) four years ago.
In 2017 she was made a Dame of the Order of Saint John (DStJ).
Another fantastic achievement this year was hitting her £1m fundraising target for her charity, the Mary Peters Trust, which supports up-and-coming athletes across Northern Ireland.
The money was raised before her 80th birthday in July, and for Mary it was the best present she could have received.
"I set myself the target so that when I am no longer here the charity will continue to support our young people and we achieved it before my birthday," she says.
"Young people have to be trained and it can involve so much travel for them. Many of them are bringing back significant medals, and I'm proud that we have helped more than 4,000 young people to date.
"Because a lot of people are away on holidays in July we had a birthday celebration at the Titanic Building in May.
"A lot of the present-day athletes came and paid their respects and Kathy Grainger, who is chair of UK Sport and a multiple Olympic champion rower, Daley Thompson and lots of local sports stars were there. My niece flew in from Australia to be there and that was very exciting as she is like a daughter to me. It was an amazing night."
The year had yet more to offer Mary when in October she launched her critically acclaimed book Passing the Torch.
Aimed at inspiring the next generation of women, she tells the story of some great female sports stars such as Dame Kelly Holmes, Sharron Davies, Jayne Torvill, Isabel Woods and many more.
With such a huge heart for helping young people achieve their sporting dreams, the book was very important to Mary.
"I just feel that I've had the most amazing life through sport and I just want to encourage every young person to go out and try it - if they don't try it they will never know how good they can be," she says.
With no family in Northern Ireland, Mary spends Christmas with good friends.
Around 10 of them will enjoy turkey and all the trimmings, followed by a drinks party for even more friends on Boxing Day.
As she lost her mum on New Year's Eve (her mother died from cancer when Mary was just 16), it is always a sad day for Mary and she chooses to spend it quietly at home alone.
Her mum and dad, Hilda and Arthur, created magical Christmases for Mary and her brother John when they were children, which she fondly recalls: "I was a war baby, born in 1939 just before the war and I remember the blackout at Christmas and sitting by the open fire roasting chestnuts which was just amazing.
"We got pillowcases with books and toys, an apple and an orange, a thruppenny bit and maybe a few sweets.
"My father had worked in a butchers and poultry shop when he was a young man and so he dressed the turkey while mum and I made the mince pies.
"We played games on Christmas Day - I remember whist - and then, when we were a bit older, we played bridge as a family. We didn't have a Christmas tree but we made our own decorations."
Mary has no plans for 2020 but just hopes to continue to raise money for her charity while also slowing down a little and taking more time for herself.
"My friends keep saying to me to do less now that I am 80 but I love my life and I love helping and supporting others," she smiles.
"I will do a little less next year and I hope to go on a couple of good holidays. My hobby is patchwork quilting which I hope to do a bit more of with friends.
"I would just like to say to people not to forget their neighbours over Christmas as there are a lot of lonely people out there.
"Just go and rap your neighbours' doors and wish them a happy Christmas. And I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the Belfast Telegraph readers a happy Christmas and a healthy New Year."
Wendy Austin: 'My mum was beside a big pile of soot saying she had surprised Santa'
The BBC's Wendy Austin is used to hosting her family at Christmas but this year is looking forward to a more relaxing day as her daughter Kerry takes charge of the festivities at her home.
Christmas for the Austin's revolves around family and this year there were two new additions when Wendy welcomed her third grandchild Finn into the world in April and a new son-in-law, Ruairi Digney, who married youngest daughter Clare (30) last month.
Little Finn lives in London with his parents Niall and Anna who won't make it home until December 28 but thanks to Facetime they will all get to see each other on Christmas Day via video technology.
Granny Wendy and husband Frank Hewitt will however enjoy a day with Kerry and husband Adrian Kearney and their two kids Austin (5) and Ellis (4) as well as youngest daughter Clare and new husband Ruairi.
Wendy says: "Up until now everyone came to me at Christmas but this year it will be lovely to go to my daughter's. It is just easier for them as the kids are at an age when they don't want to leave their toys.
"We do have the traditional turkey and all the trimmings although there are a couple of vegetarians in the family now so there will be some interesting alternatives.
"The big event for us is the Christmas pudding. There is always a scrap over who will light it and carry it in and even now when my children are in their 30s they still fight over it. I stay well out of it and let them sort it out between them.
"It was a tradition my mum started and we have just carried it on. I don't really go to church over Christmas although my kids would go to the midnight service at St George's Church on Christmas Eve. My son Niall was in the choir there and my youngest daughter got married there three weeks ago.
"We don't make a point of watching the Queen's speech but if it is on and we are not eating we will watch it."
Wendy also looks forward each year to bringing her grandchildren to see Santa and this year will be taking them snow-tubing with Santa in Craigavon.
Santa plays a big part in her own memories of Christmas as a child. She has fond recollections of visiting Santa's grotto in the department store in Londonderry run by her grandparents, Mollie and Glover Austin.
Austins department store in the city's Diamond was established in 1830 and, until 2016, remained standing as the world's oldest independent department store.
Wendy remembers at the age of just seven or eight with her younger brother David being given the very important role of secretly checking out the competition in the other Santa's grottos in the city.
She recalls: "It was a very old fashioned store with great big mahogany counters, like something out of the Grace Brothers, and the grotto was on the top floor.
"No one knew who we were, so David and I would go and see what the Santas in the other stores were doing and report back. It was quite fun and we felt that we were doing something useful."
Christmas for the family was usually spent either at home in Belfast or at granny Austin's house in Londonderry.
Wendy's dad Cecil was a dentist and her mum Irene was a librarian for the Red Cross. Both her parents have now passed away and she also lost her beloved only brother David in October 1995 at the age of 40.
Memories of her childhood are more special than ever and she recalls the lengths her mum went to, to keep the magic alive for her children: "I remember one year just around that point when I starting to ask questions. Our sitting room was on the first floor as dad's surgery was in the big room downstairs. I heard my mum squeal in the sitting room and ran up to see her standing with a big pile of soot on the fireplace and she said she had just surprised Santa.
"My parents were very sociable and loved having parties. Around Christmas time there would have been a lot of friends coming and going and aunts, uncles and cousins. Mum was a great cook and we'd have had a super Christmas dinner. Every other year we went to granny Austin's house which was much more formal than our house.
"It was absolutely Baltic as there was no central heating. It was nice and warm for the person who was sitting closest to the fire.
"My granny Austin was very artistic and a terrific gardener and I remember she used to make these fantastic table centres from old mirrors and create a little forest with animals and my brother and I loved them. "
Wendy was thrilled to celebrate a couple of major family milestones in 2019 making this Christmas even more special than usual.
She says: "Finn was born in April and he is a great wee fella and he loved Strictly Come Dancing, he was gripped by it. It has been a great year with Clare getting engaged the same week that Finn was born and then her wedding three weeks ago was the icing on the cake.
"Kerry's children are at a great age for Christmas and they are beside themselves with excitement and of course the elf arrived on December 1. I take them to see Santa every year and this year we are going snow-tubing with Santa on Craigavon Ski Slopes which should be fun."
If 2019 was memorable, then 2020 is set to be even more momentous for Wendy when she hangs up her headphones at the BBC after 44 years.
A veteran of the station who presented Good Morning Ulster for many years, she plans to retire from her job as presenter of Inside Business on January 31, a role she has had for five years. Wendy joined the BBC in 1976 and during her time has presented a multitude of programmes across TV and radio including Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster, Talkback, as well as PM and Women’s Hour on BBC Radio Four. On TV she brought us Open House and In Your Corner as well as documentaries including Hillsborough Revisited and Goliath Go to Sea.
“I just thought it was a good time to take a step back and it was very much my choice. I’m very happy about it,” she says. “I have been five years with Inside Business and I’ve enjoyed it the most out of everything I’ve done. I think business is really interesting and it’s what makes things happen. It’s what keeps the economy going and there are some great stories out there about good people doing interesting things — I enjoyed telling those stories. I had a great producer, Niall Blaney, and we’ve both enjoyed working together on it.”
Wendy has decided to retire so that she can spend more time with her husband and family. But while she is giving up her weekly slot at the BBC, she hopes not to disappear off the airwaves completely.
“There comes a time when you need to do something else and I just want a bit more flexibility rather than know I have to be at a certain place every week,” she says. “I hope to continue to do conferences and, who knows, if the BBC is stuck maybe they will give me a ring. I hope they are not going to lock me out, although it certainly is going to feel very strange.
“When you are used to doing stories and looking for things it will be quite odd for me to be thinking about that interesting thing I saw or person I met and not inviting them on to my programme, but I’m sure I will get my head round it.”
As 2020 approaches and a new chapter begins, Wendy is looking forward to enjoying a simpler life and indulging her love of travel.
“I hope Frank and I will be able to do a bit of travelling and enjoy walking the dog on the beach in Donegal,” she says. “And I’ve always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. We hope to do that this year, maybe in the spring when the desert is blooming. We love Italy and have been going there for 20 years — every time you go you find something different.”
Wendy hasn’t left our airwaves just yet and next week she and some of her colleagues who have also announced they are leaving the station — Noel Thompson, Karen Patterson and Seamus McKee — will feature in a series of Talkback Christmas specials. Each of the broadcasters will be in conversation with William Crawley, reflecting on their lives and careers in broadcasting and sharing some of their favourite music with listeners.
The first of these interviews will be with Wendy on Christmas Eve while Noel Thompson will be in conversation with William Crawley on Friday at noon, Karen Patterson will feature on Monday, December 30 and Seamus McKee on New Year’s Eve. All episodes will be available to listen to on the BBC Sounds App or on bbc.co.uk/sounds.
Noel Thompson: 'Having retired it will be a relief not to have to set my alarm for 4.15am'
For BBC veteran Noel Thompson the festive countdown starts when he finds himself on stage with for the annual Messiah at Christmas concert in Belfast. This year it was December 14 when the Waterfront Hall came alive to one of Handel's most captivating oratorios performed by Noel and his fellow choristers in Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the Ulster Orchestra.
Noel, who has been singing in choirs since the age of seven, says: "The Messiah is always the start of Christmas for me and that gets the ball rolling and is a wonderful start to the festive season. It's usually around 10 days or so before Christmas and then it's all hell for leather after that."
While he admits that most of the preparations fall to his wife Sharon (64) a yoga teacher, he does try to do his bit: "Of course the shopping is all done online now and I think I do my bit, although my wife might disagree.
"I make sure to get the turkey and ham in although Sharon would do the bulk of the food shop."
Noel's two sons Matthew (32) and Patrick (27) both live in London and will be coming home for Christmas along with Matthew's fiancée Katie.
It is a quiet family Christmas in the Thompson household in Belfast where the boys still enjoy getting up to a sack full of presents from Santa.
Noel says: "The boys will be home for four or five days which will be nice and Matthew will be married next year so we don't know how many more times he will be having Christmas at home. One of my brothers lives in Bristol and we've had Christmas there. One is in London and we've had Christmas with him and I also have one in the West Indies and on one very lucky occasion we have gone out there for Christmas.
"On Christmas morning some of us will go to church and some go to the midnight service. We don't all go to the same service but no one ever goes alone; there is always someone to tag along.
"When the boys were growing up they had a big Santa bag of stuff under the tree and they still have it.
"Nowadays it is slightly more civilised on Christmas morning as they are not up at 5am.
"One of them got a crystal bell as a christening present and I used to stand at the bottom of the stairs and ring it on Christmas Eve and Sandra would have told them they better get to sleep as Santa was coming.
"The boys still get new dressing gowns or slippers and when they come down they will put them on.
"We then open our presents and have tea and toast. Then it's all the preparation for the lunch which we usually have late around 2pm."
Lunch is a very traditional turkey and all the trimmings and afterwards the family will play games rather than switch on the TV. Noel remembers Christmas as a child when the TV stayed off all day as the celebrations evolved around music and singing.
He says: "In our house growing up Christmas was always about music and we would all gather round the piano.
"We never watched TV although my mother would put it on to watch the Queen's speech. I was in a choir from the age of seven and Christmas was always a very special time in the choir and I would have the midnight communion and then the Christmas day service.
"We always listened to the King's Carols on Christmas Eve and I still do watch it, although back then it was on the radio rather than the TV. I remember we would have come home from the midnight service with my three brothers and my parents and we would have had tea - and maybe the adults had a glass of something else - and sat and talked to maybe two or three in the morning.
"We then got up for the morning service at 10.30am. We had a fantastic Christmas as children. Mum was a great Christmas cook and my parents did their best to make it very special for us."
A highlight of the year for Noel was a very special celebration for his eldest brother Stephen's 70th birthday.
He and Sandra joined his three brothers and their wives to celebrate with a trip to Russia.
Noel says: "It was Stephen's choice and we all went and it was a wonderful family holiday. We spent four days in St Petersburg and four days in Moscow and it really was quite special."
But by far the most significant development in 2019 for Noel was his decision to retire from the BBC after 40 years.
One of the best known faces on TV, Noel began his BBC career in 1979 and since 2012 has presented BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster and BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight Special programmes. Before this he was anchor of BBC Newsline and for 16 years presented the award-winning political debate programme Hearts and Minds. He has also been compere of BBC Northern Ireland's annual Proms in the Park since it began in 2002.
While he says he won't miss the 4.30am starts to bring us our breakfast news he does hope to continue to present occasionally for the BBC.
He says: "It was my choice to retire; there was no pressure at all from the BBC. I just thought the time had come.
"It will be a relief not having to set the alarm for 4.15am and get to bed at nine every night.
"It does feel like you are waking in the middle of the night and you don't get used to it although your body adapts.
"I am not retiring altogether from broadcasting and journalism and I hope there are still some programmes to be made.
"I have been in talks with some independent documentary companies although there is nothing concrete yet."
Noel is a keen hill walker and he and Sandra plan to move to Dundrum in 2020 to be closer to the Mournes and the beach, where they have spent most of their spare time for the past 25 years.
He also plans to catch up with old friends from his university days in Cambridge who are scattered across England, Scotland and Europe.
He adds: "I have four or five old school friends in Scotland and England and I am going to take 10 days next year and go by train and see all of them.
"It will be nice to not have that 'early to bed early to rise' lifestyle anymore and to have a more normal life. I look forward to being able to spend even more time with the Philharmonic Choir and Northern Ireland Opera.
"I have a lot of friends who retired in their mid-50s and they say it takes a bit of adjustment. I've never been one for routine and I'm looking forward to the unpredictability of it."
Tiffany Brien: 'We don't do it by half, it always ends with a massive party and singing and dancing until the early hours'
With her busy life as a fitness blogger, estate agent, model and champion sailor Tiffany Brien is looking forward to slowing down for a few days and enjoying a quiet Christmas at home with her family.
It has been a big year for the 29-year-old who hit the ground running - or rather cycling - in March with a mammoth challenge to cycle 1,238 miles in 15 days to raise funds for research into Motor Neurone Disease (MND).
Battling rain, snow and biting winds, Tiffany spent 88 hours in the saddle as part of The Great Rugby Cycle 2019 which set off from John O'Groats on March 4, finishing at Land's End on March 20.
The cycling event aimed to support former Scotland rugby star Doddie Weir's charity set up to fund research into MND. Doddie revealed in 2017 he had MND. Tiffany's team managed to boost his research fund by £26,000.
Tiffany is already working hard to get another cycle for Doddie's charity organised for April 2020 when once again she will push herself to the limit mentally and physically cycling 1,000 miles round Ireland in 11 days.
She says: "Doddie is amazing and this time we are hoping to do a cycle around Ireland which will be fantastic. You see so much on a bike as you sit there for 10 hours a day trying to divert your mind from the pain you are in.
"Ireland is home and it's so beautiful and I'm really looking forward to seeing it while we cycle. At the minute we are trying to see who we can drum up to take part and I am helping with marketing and social media and tapping into every contact I have to try and get sponsorship. It is a surreal experience taking your body to a whole new level and pushing it beyond what you think it can take. It's totally mind over matter and it's hard, you have to keep your head in the game and that's what I like about it."
Pushing herself to the limit is nothing new to Tiffany as any one of her 64,200 Instagram and 90,600 Facebook followers can attest to.
Super fit and still a competitive sailor, also in 2020 she has her sights set on taking part in the Irish and British Sailing Championships.
Tiffany, who is from Holywood, Co Down, is the daughter of well-known estate agent Simon Brien of Simon Brien Residential where her hard work ethic saw her promoted this year to the position of associate director in the company. Also in 2019, she renovated a period terrace house beside the sea in Holywood and was thrilled to move in during the summer. She says: "It was an enormous project and I sunk every penny I had into it. It was the biggest spend of my life but I did it all myself and it was so worth it. I still go home at night and pinch myself and I go to bed and can't believe this is mine."
Modelling and blogging on fitness and fashion is another job she fits into her hectic lifestyle. As our beautiful cover picture shows, Tiffany is a natural in front of the camera, posing during a recent photo shoot for Blush Boutique on Belfast's Lisburn Road with her agency CMPR.
She says: "Modelling is good fun and I work with Blush all year round and they have been great to me. If I have an event to go to they will let me go and get a dress from them. The photoshoot in the Merchant Hotel was amazing."
Christmas for the Briens is all about family and extended family - cousins, uncles and aunts - usually fly home from all parts of the UK to celebrate together. This year it falls to Tiffany's mum Juanita to host and as well as her own children, Tiffany, Jack (22) and Jess (27) and husband Simon there will be around 10 other family members for dinner.
Tiffany says her dad becomes Mr Christmas over the festive season, enjoying every minute of the celebrations: "Christmas is always big at my family home. My dad especially loves Christmas time. As kids he used to make us do the whole leaving Santa and Rudolf's food out on Christmas Eve.
"Then on Christmas morning we would have to line up outside the living room door in age order before we were allowed in to see if Santa came. To this day he makes us do this and we are now 29, 27 and 22!
"He then insists that we each open one present at a time so that he can see our reaction and he always acts surprised even though he bought the presents.
"Dad loves partying and family and we don't sit down to dinner until about 5pm. It is turkey, trimmings and the rest! We don't do it by half. It always ends up in a massive party with music and dancing until the early hours. My family aren't quiet ones!
"For me Christmas is about spending time with my family and loved ones. It is such a special time of year that everyone is home at the same time and we all make the most of it."
New Year's Eve for Tiffany is usually a quiet night spent at home and as the 2020 dawns she will be focusing on one thing - the Great Rugby Cycle.
She adds: "Come January I will be into training and focusing on the cycle as well as working hard at Simon Brien Residential."