‘The lights are on but there’s nobody in town’ – how covid switched off Christmas in Portadown

By James Gould

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – usually, that is …

However, as Portadown, like towns and cities across Northern Ireland marked the start of a traditional feast of festive busy-ness, with the switching on of the centrepiece Christmas tree lights, there were a few glaringly obvious omissions.

For a start, there were no excited children anywhere to be seen and not even Santa Claus had come to town.

Rather than families gathering in their normal droves, all delivering a collective count-down while some local celebrity prepares to press the switch and announce Christmas finally here, this year’s big event was a virtual affair viewed only via a live Facebook stream.

Gone too are the jingle jangle sounds of ringing shop tills.

On this particular night in any other given year, business would be booming in the High Street with local shops, restaurants and pubs all enjoying a pre-festive boom-time.

Not this year, though.  

Instead, the only signs of life are the stuttering flicker of security lights barely illuminating weary-looking window dressings half-heartedly advertising Black Friday sales.

In some cases, shops have ditched the dressing altogether and pulled down the shutters – almost a look of resignation that Christmas is already cancelled.

One local shop owner Timothy Kerr, who owns ‘Robert James’, a popular high-end men’s and women’s fashion store in the centre of the town, has seen the best and worst of Portadown down through the years.

Robert James menswear

This is top of the worst list.

“While the first lockdown for retail back in March was not unexpected, this second lockdown for non-essential  came as a massive shock to us all, not least because it has happened in the peak trading period for most of the town centre businesses,” he said.

Mr Kerr pointed to the fact that the town had been gradually suffering trade losses over recent years due to the growing popularity of shopping centres such as Rushmere in nearby Craigavon.

With the arrival of the covid pandemic an already worrying situation for local shop owners, was clearly becoming even worse.   

The Christmas tree and an empty town

Tonight, there’s an eerie silence everywhere, broken temporarily on the hour with the famous old town church clock striking a familiar note.   

It seems coronavirus has achieved something that not even the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge could – to snuff out the magic of Christmas in one fell swoop.

Quite simply, lockdown has transformed this particular Co Armagh market town into a proverbial ghost town.