Christmas in Belfast is booming. Not so long ago, that phrase would have had a different connotation, with the fearful cacophony of terrorists' bombs and bullets crowding out the peaceful message of Christmas. But this year is all very different.
Some three months ago, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a cease-fire, which was followed several weeks later by a Loyalist paramilitary cease-fire. The effects of this historic development, after a quarter century of turmoil, have been dramatic, and they are clearly symbolized by the atmosphere in Belfast itself.
As I drive to the city center, I notice the long traffic holdups because of the increased number of people who are coming to the capital to do their Christmas shopping. Until now, many were too fearful to venture into Belfast from nearby towns and villages.
Equally noticeable, too, are the number of people with southern Irish accents, which are softer and more rounded than the somewhat clipped tone of Ulster speakers. Visitors from the Irish capital Dublin, and even from as far away as Kerry on the southwest coast of Ireland, are coming up to the North.
For 25 years, Northern Ireland was a ``no-go land'' for southerners. Now these visitors are most welcome, not only to help boost the Northern economy but also to bring back home some firsthand accounts of a friendlier, more peaceful North.
The comparative ease of access into and out of shops is another sign of change. There are no longer any security guards to search handbags or to ``frisk'' male shoppers in case they are carrying incendiary bombs. Many stores were burned down in fires started by such devices. Nowadays, the only inconvenience is that of waiting while crowds of shoppers, many more than usual, filter in and out.
It seems odd to be able to walk straight into the lobby of the downtown Europa Hotel, which until recently was one of the most bombed hotels in the world. I remember, as a staff journalist with a Belfast newspaper, dining there with the all-too-rare visitors who braved the Ulster scene and having our meal interrupted by bomb scares.
Now you can dine in peace in the Europa, even if it is more pricey than in the dark days of war, and you can park your car in the forecourt without fuss. In the past, you had to negotiate your way past uniformed guards who maintained strict security behind a high steel fence.
On occasions, I also wrote Christmas stories for my newspaper, trying to find even the slightest glimmer of peace, but I was trying to make bricks with little straw. It was hard to write about ``Peace on earth, and mercy mild'' to the sound of gunfire or bomb blasts or whirring helicopter blades overhead.
And even when I did find a Christmas story about reconciliation or ``hands across the divide'' (and there were quite a number of such stories), they seemed less credible when set against the banner headlines of ``Protestant shot dead'' or ``Catholic father gunned down in front of his children.''
Even as a battle-hardened veteran, which I almost was in my worst moments after more than two decades of war reporting, I was shocked every Christmas by the announcement of a Provisional IRA cease-fire. Of course it was welcome news, as a temporary cessation of violence, but I could not understand how men and women could lock their guns away, enjoy Christmas turkey and presents with their families, and then go out and continue to murder and maim their fellow human beings only two days later.
Even today, as I write, it is not easy to push those memories away.
In Northern Ireland, we have come a long way in a short time. But I am aware, like many other people, that we do not have a permanent peace, only an agreed cessation of hostilities while the politicians and the paramilitaries try to edge forward to a lasting peace, inch by inch. But the prospect of the first peaceful Christmas in 25 years is immensely appealing.
This year, as every year, I will attend the magnificent choral service in Belfast Cathedral with more than a thousand people singing the timeless Christmas message. But in my heart, I will know that true peace at Christmas, whether in Boston or Berlin, Botswana or Belfast, begins in my heart and yours.
There's a lovely peace song that applies to the whole world at Christmas and throughout the whole year as well: ``Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.''