Christmas won’t ever be the same again

Last Christmas in Sheffield: Jasmine, mum Siobhan, Charliey-Grace, Steve and baby Levi.                          Photo: Stuart Hastings
Last Christmas in Sheffield: Jasmine, mum Siobhan, Charliey-Grace, Steve and baby Levi. Photo: Stuart Hastings
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What does Christmas mean to you?

We’ve been tracking down women for whom this Sunday will be extra magical, for very different reasons.

In the black: Cheryl Blackbourn and sons Benjamin and Samuel will have a happy Christmas.

In the black: Cheryl Blackbourn and sons Benjamin and Samuel will have a happy Christmas.

One is finally free of crippling debt, the is other facing her last family Christmas in the UK.

Shackled by more than £16,500 of debt, Christmas brought only guilt and worry.

Single mother Cheryl Blackbourn had to listen to her youngest children, excitedly talking about what must-have toys their friends were expecting from Father Christmas and praying they would be lucky enough to get the same.

She had to look at their hopeful faces, all the while knowing there was no chance.

Her young sons would be getting plenty of parcels to unwrap, she’d made sure of that.

But all they would contain were six pairs of socks and pants apiece, plus new jumpers and pyjamas - the clothes they badly needed, plus a few bits from Poundland.

As soon as the presents were open, she and the children would head off to a friend or relative’s house for the rest of Christmas Day.

An invite meant no food to buy - and being able to turn off the gas and electricity for a few hours.

But that was Christmas past.

This year, the story is very different. There will be luxury presents under the tree and a slap-up dinner at their Shiregreen home.

“This will be our first proper Christmas for years. I can actually afford to give them the presents they want and the day they deserve,” she says.

This once-careful woman fell into debt in her second marriage.

“We took out a loan from the Credit Union to pay for the wedding; we started married life with debt hanging over us,” she says.

It got worse; money was tight, she was the only one who could get credit, so she took out more and more store cards and credit cards to make ends meet. “I lost track of how many I had,” she says. When the relationship ended, she discovered there was far more owing on the cards than she had expected.

To add to that, there were final demands from bills she assumed her husband had paid long before.

Suddenly, she was up to her eyes in money trouble.

Her only income came from allowances for looking after her sons Benjamin and Sam, both of whom have ADHD.

“I’d managed to support myself and my two older children for ten years without getting into a financial mess. I didn’t know where to turn,” she says.

She went to a firm who consolidated all her debts into one large loan.

There was only one monthly payment to make instead of dozens. And it was a reasonable £60 a month.

But eventually, she realised she was paying just £10 a month off her debt - the rest was interest she was paying to the loan company.

“It was going to take me until I was 90 to pay it off,” says the 46-year-old.

A relative told her about the debt counselling service provided by CAP, Christians Against Poverty, a nationwide charity.

“I went to them three years ago. I was suspicious at first.

“But they went through all my incomings and outgoings, contacted the companies I owed money to and made arrangements for payments.

“Then they asked me to pay them £125 a week and I was horrified.

“But they explained that a huge chunk of that money would be used to clear my debts and the rest would go into my own savings account at CAP.

“They taught me how to manage with what I’d got left. I scrimped and saved and we did without for three years, month by month, the pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel got bigger and bigger.”

This March, Cheryl was told she was debt-free - and had £997 in her CAP account.

She’s still budgeting, though. The presents she has wrapped have been paid for with cash - and only after much shopping around to get the best price.

The Christmas tree she got new baubles for from second-hand website Freecycle is their old one with a wonky leg.

And she and the boys have made their Christmas cards.

But, says Cheryl, the feeling of peace and safety they now have is priceless.

CAP’s 160 centres provide free debt counselling for everyone, regardless of faith or religion, through a series of home visits.

Says Ralph Keene of CAP Sheffield: “We empower people to work themselves out of debt by giving budgeting advice and contacting creditors. We see many people transforming their finances.”

Email or call 0114 241 9560. Address: St Thomas Church, 6 Gilpin Street, Sheffield, S6 3BL.

Family fun and then we’ll pack our bags

As they gather beneath the Christmas tree in the house that has been in her husband’s family for three generations, Siobhan and Steve Bullock and their three children look the picture of contentment.

But in two weeks’ time, their secure family existence will be severely shaken. It won’t only be the tree they’re packing away. Their entire lives will be wrapped in tissue paper and stored in cardboard boxes, ready for the new life that awaits them in Germany.

The Bullocks will be leaving the UK for good. They are moving to Frankfurt to set up a branch of Hope City Church, the Christian movement which has established strong community roots and a congregation of 1,000 in Sheffield since its arrival in 1991.

“This is our last Christmas in Sheffield so we’ll be making sure it’s extra special,” says Siobhan, 36, mum of Levi, six months, Charlie-Grace, 5, and Jasmine, 3.

“Moving our family is a huge decision. But the kids are very young, which we think will make it easier for them. Besides, if we don’t do it now, when will there be a perfect day?”

Leaving the city fills them with “a sense of excitement rather than sadness”.

Says Siobhan: “It’s a new beginning, a completely new chapter. And because we’re going just after Christmas it feels like we’re leaving on a high.”

The couple, who met at Hope City when Siobhan came to study at Sheffield University and married ten years ago, fly out to join eight other church members and will be pastors of the new church,

Siobhan anticipates their community work will be extensive. “In Eastern Europe human trafficking is a big issue; Germany, which borders nine countries, is a key location,” says the former director of Hope City’s refuge, City Hearts, a role which gave her a deep insight into the horrors sexually exploited women endure.

But in the meantime, the emphasis is on a happy family Christmas - with farewells aplenty.

“We will go to church on Christmas Day and we plan to spend time with as many people as we can. We’re actually having four Christmas Days with different relatives and friends.”

The couple did all their gift-shopping early and put the tree up on December 3. And they have decided not to pack a thing at their Norton Lees home, where Steve grew up and where his grandparents also once lived, until the celebrations are over.

“We don’t want to spoil a moment of it,” she says. “And we will be giving full rein to all the very British Christmas traditions because who knows when we will do it again? The German way of celebrating is very different to ours.”

Adds Siobhan: “I am sad about leaving Sheffield. It’s where Steve and I met and our children were born here. There are a lot of people we will miss but we are really looking forward to a new chapter in our lives beginning in the New Year.”

Follow Siobhan and Steve’s adventure in Frankfurt on twitter @HopeCityFrank or on Facebook