First Come the Holidays, Then Comes Marriage

  

Michele & VanessaWe’re Michele and Vanessa, and we’re getting married on April 30, 2017. Michele is Jewish and grew up just outside Philadelphia; Vanessa was raised in the Church of England (more or less equivalent to the Episcopal Church) a little outside London in the U.K. We got engaged in May 2015, and are thrilled to be counting down to the big day and our interfaith celebration.

Amidst our wedding planning (more on that another time), we’re also—like everyone else—planning our holiday celebrations. This is a pretty big year for us, as it’s our first Christmas in the U.S. For the last couple of years, we’ve gone to the U.K. and celebrated with Vanessa’s family; but this year we’re staying in Philly. For a while, I (Vanessa) was pretty sad: This is the first Christmas in 31 years that I won’t be with my family, watching my sister stare with trepidation through the oven door at the cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and listening to my mum attempt the descants to Christmas carols on TV. But talking this over with Michele, and planning the holidays with her has brought me a lot of joy, as I’ve realized that this is actually a really exciting opportunity: We get to figure out how we can create our own traditions, and not just do whatever our families do, as we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.

This has led me to seek out cookie cutters in the shapes of dreidels and reindeer, menorahs and Christmas trees, and a variety of stars, both five- and six-pointed. I did a dance of delight in the Dollar Plus when I found Hanukkah garlands next to the Christmas tinsel. We started our own collection of tree ornaments that we’ll keep adding to each year, with a classy otter bauble from the Vancouver Aquarium on the first vacation we took together that didn’t involve either of our families. Our hope is that, in a few years’ time, our tree will be covered in ornaments that represent memories from our lives together. These things might sound frivolous, but for us, they symbolize the joining of our lives and our traditions; albeit in sparkly and (hopefully) delicious forms.

More seriously, we’ve had to negotiate with family members what holiday events we’re going to, with Hanukkah brunches and parties surrounding Christmas church services and the first Christmas dinner hosted by us for Michele’s family (complete with British stuffing and Christmas cake, sent all the way from England by my mum). We’ve had to think about what’s really important to us in terms of our own traditions, and about what elements we want to share with each other. I want to go to Christmas services because it’s important for me to hear a choir welcoming Christmas in with “Adeste Fidelis,” but I’m happy to let the cauliflower cheese go as we make the dinner kosher-style. Latkes are fairly high on Michele’s priority list, but being all together and visiting the various branches of her family is even higher.

It’s easy to get caught up in the mania of present-buying, tree-decorating, cookie-eating and playlist-curating, and to be honest I’m definitely enjoying all those parts. But Michele and I are able to use those things to have conversations about what the holidays mean to us, how our families traditionally celebrate them, and what we want them to be like in our married life together. Of course, I’ll still miss my family—but this December, I’ll be surrounded by the love of my new family, Michele and all the Zipkins, and I can’t wait. It’s a timely reminder that our wedding planning isn’t just about working toward a wedding, but a marriage. I feel incredibly lucky that we’re getting a head start on building our traditions for that marriage this year. Even if I’m covered in powdered sugar and my reindeer cookies look more like dogs.

Blending Holiday Decorations and a New Life Together

  
Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

In a million years, I never would have imagined that I would someday marry the sweet, funny, curly-haired freshman I met at a house party at Penn State 10 years ago. Yet, here we are.

Paul and I were friendly acquaintances at Penn State, but not much more. Despite our shared love of bad television and daiquiris, we only socialized a handful of times during our four years in State College.

After graduating from Penn State, Paul moved to Philadelphia to study medicine and I moved there to study law. Halfway through our second year of graduate school, we discovered we were both single. (Thanks, Facebook!) Paul asked me out. Unlike our chance encounters at Penn State, when Paul walked into our first date it was different. We talked for hours, laughed a lot and I had this overwhelming intuition that this was the beginning of something big.

We have been together since that first date. Our respective career paths have not always made it easy or even allowed us to live in the same city, but we both now work and live in Philadelphia. Nearly five years strong, we are still talking for hours, still laughing a lot and our relationship is the biggest thing in my life.

On a chilly Friday night this past December, Paul proposed in our living room, which was decorated at the time with our Star of David-topped Christmas tree, wax-covered hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) and a porcelain statue of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, recently gifted to me by my Catholic, Italian grandmother.

Surrounded by our blended holiday decorations, we excitedly agreed to blend our lives as husband and wife.

By way of background, I was raised Catholic. Paul is Jewish. Our proposal story is, undoubtedly, a beautiful snapshot of our interfaith relationship. However, in all candor, the interfaith aspect of our relationship has been a challenging (albeit, a rewarding) one. Communication and compromise have been instrumental to our process.

After one particularly difficult discussion, I turned to my best, most reliable resource in a time of uncertainty: Google. That night I found the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia website. I began reading blogs by clergy and similarly-situated couples who have made interfaith relationships, weddings and parenthood work. Suddenly, Paul and I had options, resources and a network to help us figure this out. It was a game-changer and ultimately led us to our kind and open-minded officiant, Rabbi Robyn Frisch (director of IFF/Philadelphia).

Paul and I will be married in an interfaith ceremony on December 3, 2016 in Philadelphia. While I am still not entirely sure what that will entail, I look forward to figuring it out and sharing our experience with the InterfaithFamily community.

The December Holidays

  

I have always known December as a time to prepare for Christmas. Now that I am in an interfaith relationship, December is a time for many holiday celebrations. Sam grew up in an interfaith household celebrating Christmas with his mom’s family and Hanukkah with his dad’s family.

Growing up, Sam’s family all picked one day to give their Hanukkah gifts. For example, on the first night his dad gave his gifts, and then on the second night his mom gave out her gifts and so on, as to make the excitement of Hanukkah last. I think I like this idea of gift-giving and would like to continue this tradition as Sam and I start having a family of our own.

This year, we were able to exchange all of our gifts with each other on the first night of Hanukkah. Each night thereafter we gathered on Google Hangouts. The image above is his parents (who live in Pennsylvania), his sister, Diana, on the right (at the University of Maryland), his other sister, Stacey, (in Brooklyn) and Sam and I (in New Jersey).

This holiday is unlike all other holidays that I know. All the holidays that I grew up with, we got together as a family for a day or two, but we were hardly ever together celebrating a holiday for many consecutive days. There are 12 days of Christmas and 3 days in the Easter Triduum, but we are never all together celebrating during all of these days. During Hanukkah, each evening, for 8 days, we gathered together to celebrate, by chanting the blessings over our respective menorot. For these consecutive days, we are in touch with each other on a daily basis: wishing Sam’s sister well on her exams and then hearing how well she did on them, hearing of his parent’s quest to find a nice December movie, or his other sister who always has several stories about living above a modeling agency. It is comforting to know that even as adults, my future-in-laws parents still want to hear how my day is going. Somehow his family makes my humdrum day-to-day life more exciting!

Two weekends ago, Sam’s extended family had their Hanukkah party at his aunt’s house and exchanged gifts with everyone in a Pollyanna. In my family, we do a Secret Santa on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure which one I enjoy better, the element of surprise in the Secret Santa is always fun, but then again, there is less stress in knowing who has who in Sam’s family. I love hanging out and talking with his family. The conversations at this year’s Hanukkah party seemed to always circle back to wedding planning. It was so much fun hearing the different proposal stories and how his aunts and uncles met each other!

It’s still a little strange to me, to go into someone’s house during December and not see a Christmas tree. It’s also a little strange having a Nativity scene and a menorah as decorations. I guess I am still getting used to the differences in the December Holidays. Sam and I will have to figure out these holiday traditions when we start having a family of our own, but until then- it’s Christmas with my family and his mom’s family and Hanukkah with this dad’s family!