Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

The celeb side of Christmas

By Jane Hardy

Paul Clark (54) presents UTV Live. Married to Carol, they live in Belfast and have two sons, Peter (20) and David (18). He says:

Going to the Northern Ireland Hospice in Belfast on Christmas Day really makes our Christmas. The visits came about after I’d been an ambassador for the hospice for many years. Then I became president of the hospice, and 15 years ago, thought it would be rather nice if we all went along. I’m very aware that we are seeing people who are spending their last Christmas on earth.

We’re not the only people who visit the families and patients there. Every Christmas morning, one family comes along and they play instruments and sing carols. They’ve been doing it for years, long before we started visiting.

At noon, the chaplains and members of the Hospice Council hold a service. So I try to get there at about 11.30am, and we stay until about 1pm before going home for lunch. I make sure I say hello to every family and patient, and say a word to everyone even if they’re unconscious, as hearing is the last sense to go.

My sons Peter and David choose to come with me, which is great. David has Down’s syndrome and Christmas is very special to him — he still believes in Santa Claus. When they were smaller, they came with mummy and daddy, but now Peter could turn round now and say, ‘I don’t want to go’. He doesn’t do that, however. I worried initially that they might find it upsetting, but happily they didn’t.

Those who are well enough will leave the hospice on Christmas Day for a few hours, but there are those who can’t be moved. I do remember one deeply touching occasion with this family who had gathered round the father who was unconscious and very close to death. They were sitting round holding his hands and I went and joined them and laid my hands on his, to say they weren’t alone.

I am a professing Christian and my home church is Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, although I was brought up a Catholic. I don’t see what I am doing as ‘a good thing’, it’s just an extension of my faith and me.

The hospice visit has woven its way into our routine, and it’s a happy day for me and my family. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.”

Emma-Louise Johnston (30) is a freelance TV reporter and married to Maghera businessman Jonathan Crawford. She says:

I know it’s probably cooler to be a bit, ‘Bah, humbug!’ about Christmas, but I absolutely love it. As my husband Jonathan runs the family business, which is a sort of department store including a supermarket/ toyshop/off licence/Post Office, this time of year is crazy for him. He keeps saying, ‘I’m just tired’ — so that bodes well, doesn’t it?

This is the first Christmas that I won’t be with my family, and I know you’re supposed to be all adult about it, but it is a bit of a wrench. But we’re going to be with my in-laws so it’ll be grand. Then we’ll go to my mum’s on Boxing Day. I think next year I am looking forward to having Christmas in my own house.

As a child, I had idyllic Christmases — two weeks beforehand, my mum and dad took all four of us into Leisureworld in Belfast city centre, then we’d see the Christmas tree at City Hall and go for dinner. It got you really excited.

Last year, Jonny and I went to the Continental markets and had some mulled wine and cinnamon, which spell Christmas to me. But we didn’t have any Christmas decorations as we were in what I called the ‘interim house’. This year I’m getting a real tree and some decent decorations as I want them to last.

We attended a midnight church service last year, which is a big part of Christmas, but we haven’t decided what we’ll be doing about church this year.

In terms of presents, I don’t really like buying things for people — I prefer to buy experiences. Last Christmas, I bought a Merchant’s Hotel Christmas fashion high tea for my mum, whom I’m very close to, and I had a whole night out with my dad Peter, who like me is a big child about Christmas. We had an Indian at the Bengal Brasserie, then saw Alison Moyet and ended up in Malmaison. Jonny has three nieces, lovely wee girls who were our flower girls. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I’ll be getting them tickets for something great ...

Last year, I had Jonny’s presents wrapped and couldn’t wait for him to get up and open them. I eventually got him up at 11am, we had a glass of champagne, then he handed me a Christmas card with a wad of cash, saying, ‘You’re so difficult to buy for’! I used it to buy make-up, clothes, music, a new iPod, and even boring things like my car tax.

Mum picked us up later and we went across to her place — it was the first time my married brother was there with his wife and it was a totally full house. My father cooked, as always, and mum and I were sous chefs, while he kept an eye on the turkey and ham. We watched the Queen, while my younger brother tends to watch the alternative Christmas broadcast on Channel 4. Then we played Trivial Pursuit, which became quite competitive until too many friends started dropping in, and too many glasses of red killed it.

It was relaxed and that’s the sort of Christmas I want for our house. When we have children it’ll alter things, but I would want to wait a couple of years as we’ve just built our house. I wondered about adapting to life in the country, but when I look through my minimalist bedroom window I can see right across to the Sperrins, with nothing in between.”

Stephen Nolan (35) presents the Stephen Nolan Show on Radio Ulster and the weekend phone-in shows on Radio Five Live. He says:

I absolutely love Christmas and think it’s really special. It’s the only time of year I insist on taking time off. I have my Christmas routine, and always go away on a Christmas holiday, a wee break to a different city in Europe every year. Last year, we went to Prague, which was snowy and we took a tour in a little horse and cart. I go with Fiona Shearer from commercial radio and Chris Buckler from the BBC.

I grew up just off Belfast’s Ballygomartin Road and have a memory of safely being with dad and mum over Christmas, with two parents who were full of love for me.

We didn’t go to church, it was more about the family being at home. In terms of presents, two stand out. When I was six I got this big blue Kojak walkie-talkie thing. When you pressed a button, it said, ‘Who loves ya,

baby?’ Later, I got a BMX Grifter bike. Alloys were just coming in on bikes, and it was bright yellow with a radio on the bike, very hi tech.

I remember I used to watch Minder and Noel’s Christmas Presents. And one year, round about Christmas, it was ET. I cried.

When it comes to Christmas day, I spend it with my mother Audrey. Last year, as always, we smiled through the Christmas dinner. Audrey burns the turkey every year but goes ballistic if you say that. I actually love the turkey and the roast potatoes which don’t taste right without butter plastered over them. Of course, I always convince myself it’s the last main meal I’m going to have before I ease off food and go on a radical diet. It never happens.

Instead of Christmas pudding, I have Wall’s mint Viennetta with raspbery ruffle ice cream, which is why I am the size I am. Then I crumble and sprinkle two Cadbury’s Flakes on top. And I drink peach Schnapps. I get a big bottle and get plastered.

I do watch the Queen, and other stuff. Last year, Ant and Dec were on, then I watched Deal or No Deal with Audrey, who’s a big fan — in fact, she wants to be a contestant. It’d be terrible, she’d scunder us all!

I think traditional family television is coming back, with Ant and Dec who are family entertainers, and the popularity of The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. They’re doing better than these broadcasters who set out to shock.

I’m not worried because I have a big family following. And my reputation is as a working class guy for a working class audience. I’m 35 now and a different broadcaster than I used to be. I am starting to calm down a little bit. I’m even starting to get Christmas cards from politicians ...

In terms of presents, unfortunately Audrey likes tacky stuff — her house is like something out of Coronation Street. You know, Vera Duckworth’s flying ducks ...

So I get her something like that and also buy her a little holiday. Last year she and wee Betty went to Paris. There’s always a calamity, and this time I got a phone call from her saying they’d been followed by this man who wanted to come back to the hotel with them.

Although I don’t see Eamonn Holmes at Christmas, he is a friend and I admire the way he makes broadcasting look very easy when it’s not. If I could do the job as well as him, it would be a big Christmas present.”

Father Brian D’Arcy (63) is Superior at St Gabriel’s Monastery outside Enniskillen and presents BBC Radio 2’s Sunday Half Hour as well as BBC Radio Ulster’s weekly religious show. He says:

I always said Mass in prisons on Christmas Day when I was based in Belfast, mainly at HMP Maghaberry. I did it for about five years, and it was always difficult. It was a very sad day for people, many of them on 23 hours’ confinement, just getting out for something to eat and for the religious service. Of course, some people attended for the wrong reason, which made it quite a challenge.

But I hope everybody felt somewhat better for coming. It usually depressed me greatly to see the prisoners — you couldn’t be at peace. But you could help and I would always say a few words, keeping it brief. What I said was the polar opposite of what I say at midnight Mass in my own church, when I paint a homely picture. I kept it more at the stable than the table level ...

Christmas for me starts early in December. We have a great number of people coming for Reconciliation in the confessional, which will take hours and hours. Then we get letters asking for money, and we try to respond.

I’m always invited to a number of Christmas parties, at the BBC and elsewhere, but don’t have time to go.

At the end of November, I pre-recorded the Radio 2 programme, which goes out on tomorrow from 8-9pm. It was a very Northern Irish affair. I was the presenter, we had three choirs from Methodist College, Belfast, and it took place in Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, plus the actors helping me with readings were Dan Gordon and Linda Wray.

By the time Christmas has come, I am writing articles for mid-January. I exist in two time zones and it’s not really a good thing. One day I would like to enjoy Christmas at the proper season.

Last year, I celebrated midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at 9pm. It’s my favourite part of Christmas. We have well over 800 in the congregation, with a lot of children — and Santa Claus will pay us a visit if we do things properly. There’s a little present for all the children. Immediately after that, I drive to Belfast and stay in a hotel chosen by the BBC. I usually get about two hours’ sleep and|get up next morning just about 5am.

I’m the only one in the BBC apart from the security man. I am live on air at 7am, with my flask of tea, and finish at 9am. Then I return to Enniskillen for the service at noon. After that, we all have something to eat as a community. We have a fish starter, turkey, then Christmas pudding with brandy sauce which I love. I am a non-drinker, so the closest I get to feeling drunk is the brandy sauce!

At 5pm, I visit families who have had a bereavement during the year. Then from 8-10pm, I do hospital visiting. And after that I finally collapse into bed.

Last year I was into bed at 12 and was immediately fast asleep, but somebody had taken a stroke, so at 2am I was on my way. The poor person died, so my tiredness was a small thing by comparison. Then on Boxing Day Joe Dolan, a close and good friend, died, so I had to start writing the sermon that I was going to give for his Mass on the 28th. I’m hoping this Christmas will be quieter.”

Through the Year with Brian D’Arcy — 365 Reflections, Columba Press, is out now

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