Christmas shoppers hit the high street in Northern Ireland

Margaret and John Haddock
The Haddocks have bought gifts for 40 people this year

Do you leave all your Christmas shopping until the last minute?

If so, beware that as Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year, trading hours will be limited for larger retailers across Northern Ireland.

Retail premises at more than 3,000 sq ft [280 sq m], like supermarkets and department stores, are only allowed to trade between 13:00 GMT and 18:00.

Some well-known firms have asked for the rules to be changed this year but the move has been resisted.

A request for extended Christmas Eve opening hours by Marks and Spencer in the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council area was rejected last week.

Councillors heard that the company felt that opening earlier "would allow shoppers more time in a less congested and pressured environment".

Other retailers in the area, including Lidl and the Abbey Centre shopping complex, made similar requests.

The Abbey Centre confirmed that Sunday trading hours applied to the entire centre - meaning all 70 stores, including the smaller sized ones, have to abide by the five-hour opening window on Christmas Eve.

How many days until Christmas?

With 43 shopping days until Christmas, perhaps it's not surprising that most people visiting the Abbey Centre this week were not fazed - many have already started their shopping.

Belfast couple Margaret and John Haddock have 40 people to buy for, including 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

They used to shop for more than 70 friends and family, but cut back in recent years.

"I do my shopping, see when the sales come out from January, through all year, and then whatever money I have at Christmas is my own," Margaret explained.

Also ahead of the curve, mother-of-three Gemma Mulvena from Newtownabbey began her Christmas shopping in August.

When asked if she'll be cutting back her spending this year, Ms Mulvenna said it'll be "business as usual".

"You have to, it's been so tight all year, you have to try and do a wee bit more."

It's a sentiment shared by Marcus Taggart from Oldpark.

"I'm trying to go all out. It's one day a year, isn't it?"

With gifts secured for his sister and grandmother, Marcus has another six presents to buy, and he is keen to get the job done sooner rather than later.

Marcus and Jim Taggart
Marcus and Jim Taggart are keen to get into the festive spirit

But his father Jim takes a different view of the limited Christmas Eve shopping opportunity.

"That's not good," he said.

"My friend is on social welfare and he only got his on Christmas Eve last year, he had to squash it [shopping] all in on that day. This year it'll be a killer if the shop hours are cut."

But Marcus added: "Hopefully it won't affect me. Usually I'm last minute, but I'll get it all done early this year because the stress is mental."

'Mad at the last minute'

Courtney Harris-Browning has six people to buy for.

"It's rare for me to start this early, but I just saw something so I got it," she said.

Working as a nurse, Courtney said she tries her best to avoid the shops during the busier festive period.

Courtney Harris-Browning and Stephen McCauley
Courtney and Stephen will be juggling work schedules with shopping trips

Her partner, Stephen McCauley, has at least 10 people to buy for and fears his shopping could be disrupted due to his work schedule and limited opening hours on Christmas Eve.

He said he'll "probably try to" cut back his spending but added: "It never happens".

"At the last minute you go mad like," Courtney agreed.

Melanie Hainon
Melanie said she wants to avoid buying unnecessary gifts this year

At another large retail complex, Bow Street Mall in Lisburn, Melanie Hainon said she hadn't started her shopping yet.

Melanie has three sons and is "definitely" scaling back this year. "It's been an expensive year," she said.

This year she is mostly shopping on the high street, and with one store offering a prepay top-up card scheme, she has been able to spread the cost.

"This is the first year [my children] have been old enough to really tell me what they want. So I'd rather spend less and get them what they want than buy them unnecessary things, or things they'll forget about in a few weeks," she said.

Padraig McKee Nadine McClinton
Padraig and Nadine haven't started their shopping, admitting it'll be done at the last minute

Also in Lisburn, self-confessed last-minute shoppers Padraig McKee and Nadine McClinton said they had not purchased anything yet.

"I start mine on Christmas Eve," Padraig said, adding that he was unaware of this year's trading hours.

"That's a man thing. Saturday then, it'll be the 23rd for you," Nadine laughed.

She has "too many" to buy for this year with nieces and nephews, and although she always considers cutting her spending back, she doubts it will happen.

"I say that every year," they both said in unison. "But you never do."

Salim thinks he'll be too busy with deliveries this year

Salim from Rathcoole thought he would spread some festive cheer to the shoppers of Newtownabbey.

Donning an impressive beard, the 16-year-old said he has "just a couple" to buy for and he is on a budget.

He might wait until the January sales, he explained, as he might not have enough free time to make the shops.

"I'm busy, I'm very busy. I'm out delivering the presents!"

'All about money'

For others, this year's festivities are passing with much less fanfare.

Andrew Weir from Saintfield said he "very rarely" does any Christmas shopping, aside from food.

"Presents are just a voucher, it's an easy way to do it," he said.

He reckons people go "overboard" for what he describes as "just a normal day".

"There's far too much on TV, far too many advertisements. To tell you the truth, it's just all about money, Christmas."

Becca Henderson
Becca's store will be making use of Sunday trading rules this Christmas Eve

Meanwhile, one shop in Belfast is planning to open at 10:00 on Christmas Eve.

At about 2,000 sq ft, Born And Bred in the city centre can open earlier than usual on a Sunday.

Becca Henderson said 24 December always sees a large spend.

But she admitted the limits on opening hours could leave some retailers "at a disadvantage", particularly for smaller units within shopping centres.

"You can understand why they might be upset," she added.

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said he believed there was "no case for deregulating the Sunday trading laws".

"The current laws are a hard-fought compromise for workers and smaller independent retailers," he said.

"On previous occasions when Christmas Eve was on a Sunday, no major problems occurred and we envisage this will be the case for 2023."