THE busiest shopping weekend of the year in Durham kicks off today with the opening of a three-day Christmas festival.

Durham Christmas Festival is on until Sunday, with five markets taking place alongside entertainment including a fire show, lantern parade and carol singing at Durham Cathedral.

More than 180 traders have set up in the craft and gift marquee on Palace Green, while food producers will be once again be selling their wares in the cathedral’s cloisters.

Outdoor markets will also take place in Millennium Place and Market Place, while the city’s indoor market hall will also open for the three days.

This year, as well as competing to sell their goods, traders will also be vying to be the best dressed thanks to a new prize donated by Alex Robson, of The Mad Hatter of Durham.

She said: “As a trader, Durham Christmas Festival is a must for so many reasons. It’s not only a great opportunity for my business, but also, it always has a wonderfully festive atmosphere.

“When all the traders dress up on Saturday and Sunday the shoppers really love it. With many traders going to a lot of effort, I thought it would be ideal to award a prize for the ‘Best Dressed’, though I’m sure it will be an extremely tough one to judge.”

Festival organiser Colin Wilkes said: “The traders love dressing up over the weekend, and our visitors love it too. It adds to the festive atmosphere, and simply puts a smile on many people’s faces.”

“Thank you to Alex for presenting a trophy, we’re sure the winner, who will be judged on Sunday morning, will be thrilled.”

Entertainment during the event includes musical performances throughout the city centre, fire eating and juggling on Palace Green, carols in Durham Cathedral, children’s Christmas storytelling, the children’s lantern procession and a visit by TV’s Police Interceptors.

There will also be craft sessions, falconry, magic shows and a coffee event at the Town Hall between 9.30am and 4pm, which will be raising money for the Great North Air Ambulance.

Carol services at the cathedral take place at 11am and 2pm on Saturday and at 2pm on Sunday.

The annual lantern parade will leave Market Place at 3.45pm on Saturday, arriving at the cathedral for the St Nicolas service at 4.10pm.

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