Tis The Season
For these families, holidays focus on family, food, and traditions
By Jane Latus
Ho, ho, ho and snow. Synagogue and solstice. Song and games. Families and feasts. It’s a wonderful – and diverse – life, and we asked these Connecticut folks to tell us about their favorite winter holidays and how they spend them.
Heather and Michelle Sharp
“We’re a Christmas family,” says Heather Sharp, smiling at her wife Michelle, while they take advantage of their 3-year-old twins’ naptime to talk via Zoom.
Daughter Jordan and son Jacob remember back when they were two, seeing Santa and Mrs. Claus on the Essex Steam Train’s Polar Express, and sledding out to cut a fresh tree. “The sled, the snow, the hot chocolate – I love the vibe,” says Michelle.
Except for one parent who lives in the state of Washington, both their families live nearby and are close in every way. Christmas Eves are spent with Michelle’s family, and Christmas Day with Heather’s.
“Christmas means family, and having time for each other. We put the phones away, and play board games like Pictionary. We jokingly call it FFF – Forced Family Fun. We laugh so much on those two days,” says Heather.
Heather is a high school math teacher and Michelle is a property manager for an apartment building. Last year was the first time the couple, who married in 2015, hosted Thanksgiving. “I always looked forward to hosting a big holiday,” says Michelle. That won’t happen this year, and they may not be able to get together with everyone for Christmas unless there are days warm enough to get together outside, bundled up.
However, at the very least, Heather’s mother – who watches the twins twice a week while their moms work – will still come over for their very important day of cookie baking. “Heather’s mom and nieces come over, and we order pizza and the kids decorate cookies and the adults drink wine,” says Michelle. The mess – sprinkles all over – is part of the fun.
Decorating their tree is a big deal to the couple. They collect ornaments when they travel, and collect personalized ones for each other and their kids. “Our tree is just one massive pile of memories,” Heather says. “We kind of fall in love again” every time they decorate it, Michelle adds.
Heather says the other best part of Christmas now as parents is “the priceless looks on their faces” as their children wonder how those toys suddenly appeared in their house. “It’s magical.”
Curtis and Luis Rodriguez-Porter
Forget the pandemic; this Christmas is shaping up to be the best ever for this couple. They will be newly wedded, with newly hyphenated last names, and – to top it off – will be new parents.
Those are big deals, but the little things have them elated. “To know that this year, when we do Christmas cards, we can put our new last names on them – it means a lot. Those are societal things that may not seem like a big deal, but for a gay couple to legally be able to marry and change our last names, this is huge,” says Curtis.
Both work for the Capital Region Education Council (CREC) – Luis as the Head Start family support manager and Curtis as the School Choice program manager. They met 13 years ago at a mutual friend’s house.
They married Sept. 25 at their favorite happy place, Provincetown, Mass. In October, they completed an adoption approval process through the state Department of Children and Families. “The ink is not even dry before you get a call, is what we are told,” says Curtis.
So, this won’t be their “usual” Christmas. “We’ll be buying gifts for a kid! Oh my gosh, we’ll be buying gifts for a kid,” Curtis gushed in September, before knowing who their child will be. “And we’ll start to bring them into our traditions. But of course, depending on their age, we’ll ask about their traditions and want to include those, too.”
The couple’s traditions combine Luis’ Puerto Rican and Curtis’ southern ones. Food-wise, that means (for both Christmas and New Year’s Eve) coquito, a Puerto Rican coconut punch, and a sweet potato pie recipe from Curtis’s late uncle.
The Three Kings and a Black Santa will be on the fireplace mantel, and a Black angel will sit atop a real tree, decorated with old-fashioned themed ornaments that include green and red plaid, and white lights.
They get together with both families, each eager to enjoy the other’s southern comfort foods and Puerto Rican specialties. COVID-19 will change that this year, but it’s parenthood that’s most likely to enhance one tradition: “I have to watch ‘The Christmas Story’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ every Christmas morning,” says Curtis. “Luis is used to it. He’s like, ‘Here we go, let’s cuddle.’ Then we go visit my parents. Then at night I watch them both again!”
They do expect to be able to take their new child along to a Vermont cabin for New Year’s, however, to enjoy skiing and snow tubing.
Damien Drobinski and Geoff Johnson
Family, lots of it – that’s what the holidays are about to this couple. “Normally,” as we say in pandemic times, they alternate hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas for their families, including Geoff’s ex-wife and their grown children, and 11 grandchildren.
Geoff and Damien couldn’t legally marry when they first met but did at last in 2016. Geoff’s divorce was so amicable that his ex-wife “even helped us address the invites for our wedding,” he says.
The couple has one Christmas tradition just for them, says Damien. “We wake up and go out back and sit in the hot tub for a little bit. Sometimes we get a little winter snow flurry. We enjoy each other’s company for a little while, and then come in and exchange gifts before it gets crazy.”
Damien starts cooking. “Christmas is ham. Obviously a ham, because it’s Christmas!” Geoff’s job is setting the table and cleaning up.
“When I say we get together, I mean all of them – 22 people. There’s not one room big enough for all them. We have tables set up in three rooms,” says Geoff. Before dinner, they exchange gifts and the grandkids open their stockings – and only the grandkids, because “at one point there were 17 stockings by the fireplace. It got to be crazy,” he says.
The grandchildren also all come over the first weekend in December to decorate the tree. Even the kids in California take part virtually.
“It’s those special memories we get to make that we enjoy every year, and remember,” says Damien. “One of the younger grandkids – he’s an absolutely adorable, sweet little kid, got a toy microwave. He came up to me with those sweet chubby cheeks you want to pinch, and said, ‘Do you have any battowies foe my micwowave?’”
There’s one, pipe-organ-sized, hole in Geoff’s heart at Christmas. The New Haven church he attended for 54 years, and where they married (Church of the Redeemer) closed in 2018 and sold its pipe organ. “It’s really left quite a void for me.”
For a change, New Year’s Eve “is more a good time with friends,” says Damien. “There’s a bunch of snacks, and champagne when the ball drops, then everyone goes home.”
Geoff is a realtor and a retired IT professional. Damien is principal chemist for the state Department of Public Health’s Chemical Terrorism Lab.
Mark calls himself “religious to a point – I don’t go to synagogue all the time. I don’t observe all the rituals. I try to be kosher-ish in my home; I don’t have any pork or shellfish. But I do believe in God and am spiritual.”
Having grown up in West Hartford with partially observant parents, he says, “There are many things I observe mainly because of tradition. But I do believe in the power of prayer, going to services on the High Holy Days, and respecting the importance of those days. To me, it’s a time of spiritual cleansing, to reflect on how I have been as a person and how I may improve. It’s important for anyone, even if you aren’t religious.”
Mark’s family is “not at all observant” now, he says, and he celebrates with friends, and attends services via Zoom at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. “It’s a blending of traditional and reform. It’s a comfortable place for people like me who grew up in a more traditional background,” he says.
It’s also comfortable for him as a gay man, he says. He lived in Texas for many years, where he attended a primarily LGBT reform synagogue. “Reform at the time was the most welcoming toward LGBT people.” He has been active in every synagogue he’s attended during his adult life (“I’m older than I look!” he says). A public relations professional for a large insurance company, he was president and board member of his Dallas synagogue for many years, and was its representative to the Jewish Community Relations Council. “I thought it was important we [LGBT Jews] had a voice, that we were represented to mainstream Jews. It was very important for us to be visible to the orthodox community.”
Mark can’t choose a favorite holy day. “They all for me have a special place in my life.” For instance, “Passover is all about liberation, going from bondage to freedom, so it has a lot of meaning to LGBT Jews.” And although Hanukkah isn’t “one of the biggies in religious importance, it’s also about liberty and freedom,” he says. “I love lighting the candles. You’re bringing light at the darkest time of year.”
Dr. AJ Eckert
“My family has always been my chosen family. My family of birth was never going to support or love me unconditionally,” says AJ. “I’ve also been in a perpetual state of singledom,” they add. Good thing, then, for their best friend, Aurora LaRosa: “She’s the main reason I live in Connecticut again.”
Also, good thing for brother Alex, who lives in Prague but visits regularly. “We’ve always had a shared bond,” says AJ. Alex came out as trans several years ago, and AJ is a trans, non-binary person.
“Family put a bad taste in my mouth about religion,” says AJ. “As a pagan, I do celebrate winter solstice, with little decorations like a wreath and a tree to get in the spirit of the season. But the only holiday I take seriously is Halloween.”
Do they ever. “I start planning my costumes in July. I’ve already got a few decorations out on my front porch,” they said in September. “I call the month of October ‘Shocktober’ and try to watch a horror movie every day.”
AJ is a doctor of osteopathic medicine and medical director of the Gender Affirming Program at Anchor Health Initiative. This will be the first time in 20 years they won’t be traveling to a horror convention (they’ll attend, but online.)
AJ also celebrates Christmas with friend Aurora and her family. They combine traditions from AJ’s mother (a first-generation Czech immigrant), pagan-based Christian traditions like fortune-telling games, with traditions from Aurora’s Costa Rican heritage.
A few years ago, AJ decided to go to Mexico by themselves for Christmas. “It took years to figure this out. Spend time with who you want to and do what you want to do. That takes the pressure off the holidays. That was a great revelation,” AJ says.
Rob Brandt and Jim Keating
Manchester and Somerville, MA
Clichéd love at first sight became reality one day in the Crown & Anchor’s swimming pool in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “I was having fun with friends,” says Rob. “I was in the middle of a sentence, talking to someone I knew, and I saw Jim, and swam across the pool. I said, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ He said, ‘Jim.’ I said, ‘I’m Rob.’ And I gave him a hug.”
They’ve been together four years, living apart during weekdays due to their jobs (both are IT professionals). Because both their mothers live near Jim, Rob does most of the driving. With extended families living from Torrington to Cape Cod, one can guess what happens during the holidays. “Drive, drive, drive. There’s always been a ton of driving on our holidays,” says Rob.
Food, family and music: that’s what the holidays mean to this couple. They’re steeling themselves for missing get-togethers this year, though, and say their mothers’ health is their top priority. Usually, they’d be at Rob’s aunt’s Italian “extravaganza” on the Cape. “It’s all about the food!” he says: fish stew on Christmas Eve and stuffed squid on Christmas Day.
The traveling and family meals may not happen, at least not to the normal extent, but guaranteed there will be music, even if it’s just the two of them. “Music is central to our lives,” says Jim. Rob is co-founder of the Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus, a trained singer, and a keyboard player. Jim was in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus for about 25 years and is president of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists.
They’ve spent each of their New Year’s Eves together at a little inn in Provincetown, watching fireworks and enjoying the lighting of the Lobster Pot Tree. They plan to go this year, too.
Brian Ballou and Kevin Cox
“Both of us are Christmas people,” Brian says, and he and Kevin also hope to be husbands by the end of 2021. “COVID has been messing with all of our planning.”
Brian owns The Ballou Companies, an umbrella firm for Ballou College Planning & Insurance and an Abrakadoodle franchise in which Kevin is involved. Kevin is also an artist.
Both holidays and their everyday lives have evolved during their four years together, after some initial ripples following Brian’s divorce. “Smooth is never what happens when you’re married to a woman for 17 years and you have to come out to your partner. It was messy, but it wasn’t ugly,” he says. “But we got to this point where we’re settled down.”
One tradition Brian and his ex agreed on was the importance of spending Christmas Day together with their two teenage girls.
Christmas Day comes in two stages for Brian and Kevin. It begins with Brian spending the morning and Christmas lunch with his ex-wife and daughters, while Kevin – not a morning person – gladly sleeps in.
“It’s an enjoyable day. The awkwardness is not there anymore,” says Brian. They end their day at home, exchanging gifts, sometimes with friends.
Their preferred New Year’s Eve is quiet. “We’ve found out we like staying in even better. We have some people over, maybe play a game, hang out, and when it’s midnight, give each other a kiss.”
Lauren Tagliatela and Dr. Amanda Rostkowski
Forget however this couple spent past holidays. Everything has changed, and not just because of Covid. Two factors now dictate how they celebrate, and their names are Silas and Oliver.
The 3-year-old twins may not influence how their mothers observe their religions (Tagliatela is Unitarian and Rostkowski is Jewish), but they have everything to say about holiday décor and traditions in the house.
“We haven’t had a Christmas tree for a few years. When they’re four we might be able to do it. Right now, they’re into destruction!” says Lauren.
“We’re going to try to light menorahs this year,” says Tagliatela, emphasizing “try.”
Covid derailed what is their favorite holiday, when they invite 30 to 40 friends for “Friendsgiving.” Says Rostkowski: “There are so many kids running around and it feels so free.” Tagliatela loves it because “we have really close friends who’ve become our family.”
Also not happening this year is their annual drop-in day of Christmas cookie baking.
Both are close to their families, and because Tagliatela’s is local, they spend (in normal years) Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with them.
Tagliatela is property manager for her family’s business, and Rostkowski is a gynecologist. Before meeting, both took similar paths: coming out to their parents as teens, both sets of parents slowly but eventually fully supporting them (both fathers walked them down the aisle at their wedding), and both converting from Catholicism to religions of their choosing.
“I sort of feel like I’m trans-religioned,” says Rostkowski. “I felt Jewish my whole life.” She went to Catholic schools all the way through college. “I went to synagogue my first time in high school and it felt right.” In college, she discovered an LGBT-friendly synagogue. “I went and I was like, ‘This is me.’”
At age 15, the night before her confirmation, Tagliatela cried and told her parents she couldn’t go through with it because she didn’t believe in it. “The Catholic church was telling me homosexuals would go to hell. That’s not a religion I want to be part of.” When she discovered the Unitarian church, she felt at home. “Being gay was not an issue. It was embraced.”