‘I’m a mum of 12 – I spend £200 each on Christmas presents and prep for months’

The countdown to Christmas is on… and if you’re starting to panic about a to-do list as long as your arm, then spare a thought for Zoe Sullivan. With 12 children to buy for and a family of 14 to feed, Christmas is little short of a military operation.

Think 12 stockings, mountains of wrapping paper and enough food to feed a small army! “Every year, I say I’ll start planning earlier, and I never do,” says Zoe.

“There are days when I get stressed, and days when I reckon I’ve got everything under control. But I always manage to bring it together.”

Like most mums, it isn’t the lure of shiny-wrapped trinkets under the tree that makes Christmas so special for the family.

“While it might sound cheesy,” says Zoe, “Christmas really is the most special time for us. It’s a chance to shut the door on everything and everyone and spend it in our own little bubble, without all the pressures of everyday life. I love it. We all do.”

Zoe, 45, and husband Ben, 48, a former RAF serviceman who now works in the aviation industry, didn’t plan to have lots of children. “It’s not something we ever discussed, it just happened,” says Zoe, shaking her head and smiling at the chaos of family life.

“But we really love children. We had our two eldest within 18 months of each other and then there were the twins; and once you’ve got four children, it gets easier from then on.”

The Sullivan siblings are Elisabeth, 18, Olivia, 17, Charlotte and Isabelle, 15, Noah, 13, Eva, 12, Toby, 10, Leah and Erin, seven, Agnes, six, Joseph, five, and Florence, who’s the baby at 19 months.

Having such a large family means Zoe is always kept on her toes, but thanks to the help of her eldest daughters, she has a bit of back-up. “The older children really help out with the little ones now,” she says.

“And I think you get better skilled with each one. The children keep us young.”

Keeping such a busy household on an even keel takes careful planning year-round, but at Christmas, the preparation shifts up a gear and Zoe has a strict schedule.

“I start planning for Christmas as soon as the kids go back to school in August,” she says from the family home in Burghead, Scotland. “Half the presents are bought, but I’m panicking because I haven’t got the rest.”

As the kids get older, their wish lists get much more expensive, something Zoe has to manage carefully. “The kids did lists this year,” she says, “But Leah wrote a Nintendo Switch, a PS4, an iPad and AirPods – which I had to explain was about £3,000.

“They all get the same amount of money and we’ve set a limit of £200 for each of them this year. It stretches further with the little ones, but that’s the only way to keep it fair.”

Space is also an issue, both before and after 12 sets of presents are opened. “We have to be mindful about what we buy and make sure it’s not stuff that won’t get used,” says Zoe.

“We’ve got six bedrooms but the living spaces are quite small, so there’s not much room for extra stuff!” With space at a premium, the Christmas tree is tall but slim and covered in decorations the children have made or collected over the years.

The Sullivans have so many decorations that instead of being stored in a loft or garage, they’re kept in a storage depot and are packed away in January until they’re needed again.

Putting up the decorations has turned into a bit of a Sullivan tradition. “We put the tree up while watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” says Zoe, and that isn’t the only tradition the family have created.

Instead of 12 small advent calendars, they have their own big one, a brightly numbered board where they hang bags of sweets and chocolate coins for each date in December.

One of the biggest expenses for any household is the food shop, and with 14 people, it’s not unusual for Zoe to spend around £400 a week feeding her family.

While some people get stressed over the thought of cooking a Christmas dinner, Zoe thinks the big festive trip is easier.

“We do the Christmas food shop in one go about two days before Christmas,” she says. “We get up at about 6am and head to the supermarket before it gets busy.”

Preparation is key in getting dinner ready for the big day, with Zoe reducing the stress by getting ahead on Christmas Eve. “I don’t get an actual turkey,” she admits, “because I don’t like cooking it – and I’d never get one big enough – so I buy four turkey breasts in tins, which I then cook the day before.”

To go with those, she buys 3kg carrots, 5kg potatoes, 1.5kg parsnips, 2 x neeps (turnips), 1kg frozen peas, 1kg frozen cauliflower cheese, 1kg frozen broccoli, 1kg frozen Brussels sprouts, 36 pigs in blankets and 30 stuffing balls.

After that mammoth dinner, the family always save room for something sweet. “I get one Christmas pudding and two large chocolate fudge cakes for dessert,” says Zoe.

Only Ben likes a traditional mince pie, so there’s one box of them on the shopping list, and daughter Isabelle, the family’s resident baker, makes him a mini Christmas cake too.

“I try not to go overboard because I hate waste,” says Zoe. “Last year, everyone had their own tub of chocolates, but I also buy cheese and crackers for the older ones, picky bits because we always have a buffet and games night on Boxing Day, and popcorn for the Christmas film.”

Christmas is a time of celebration for the family, and Zoe admits that it sounds like a lot of food, explaining, “There are lots of treats we wouldn’t have for the rest of the year.”

A typical Christmas Day for the Sullivan family starts early, usually at around 5.30-6am – or as late as Zoe and Ben can make the little ones wait!

“It can be a little bit mental to be honest,” says Zoe, smiling. “But it’s brilliant and fun, and it’s all gone in a flash because there’s so much going on.

“We go downstairs and open the presents, which takes about two hours, and there’s at least one sack of presents for each of the children so the lounge is full. After that, we’ll take the children upstairs and get dressed – we always wear something nice for Christmas Day and have a bit of a tidy.”

While Ben helps get everything out of the packaging and puts all the batteries in, Zoe makes a start on dinner. “We aim to eat around 2-3pm, because the kids’ll probably have eaten an entire selection box by 9am,” says Zoe, “and we normally sit around the table together.”

Christmas Day is always a magical blur, but for the Sullivans, the real magic is just spending time together. “We’ll go for a walk after dinner, and when the younger ones have gone to bed the rest of us will relax and watch a film,” says Zoe.

“It’s about spending time together, and we’re lucky because that’s what we all want to do. I love having everyone around.”

Write lists for everything.

Give each child gifts of the same value to make sure everything is fair.

“I did that one year and we’d eaten it all before Christmas came!”

“It’s not always easy, but try not to stress. Relax – any mess can wait until later.”

“Children grow up so fast, and having lots of them makes you realise how quickly time goes. Take time out and enjoy what you have when you can.”


Always put family first!

Follow the Sullivans on their YouTube channel, on Instagram@our_sullivan_family_life and on Facebook: facebook. com/BenZoeSullivanFamily

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