When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers. Though we’re living in a moment where group celebrations are either being called off or adapting to extreme social distancing, in many ways these pre-quarantine parties are just the escape we need right now.
Here, we spoke with Haleh and Anna Wilson Janisch, two employees at a boarding school in Pennsylvania who met through work and married on school grounds last August. It was the hottest day of the year, yet their 280 guests still managed to create a bountiful potluck meal to follow the barn ceremony. The evening concluded with Otis Redding tunes, fireworks, and leaps into the pool.
Anna: I grew up in the boarding school where I now work, the Camphill School. My parents moved here from Germany 33 years ago, and have been teachers at the school for more than 30 years.
Haleh: It’s a school for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Also, we met there and both still live and work there. We’re educators, but it goes a little beyond that, as we share our home with eight students and six volunteers.
Anna: I met her on a hot, summery day. Some of us were in the living room of one of the houses, and I was taking a nap on the couch. Someone called my name and I looked up and there was this beautiful person.
Haleh: I had been applying to work there and Anna was already working there. That was 2015.
Anna: I looked at her for the first time and had this feeling of like, You. I know you. Literally in seconds I recognized my life changing.
Haleh: She terrified me, in a way, because she was the most unguarded person I had ever met — she can’t even make a pretense of feeling any other way than she feels. Anna’s completely honest, completely raw, and completely herself all the time. I think that’s rare.
Anna: In August 2017, I met her parents for the first time when we were down in Mississippi. I’d had a dream that I was going to marry her.
Haleh: We were sitting on the porch at like four in the afternoon and the sky opened up. She took my hand, pulled me out into the rain, scooped up handfuls of mud, held them up, and said, “Will you marry me?”
Anna: I didn’t have a ring and the closest thing was the ground — the earth. She didn’t think I was being serious.
Haleh: We hadn’t been together for a year. Once she convinced me she was serious, I said yes, of course.
Anna: I never really thought I would ever get married, so I didn’t have any high expectations for a wedding. I’m very simple. I didn’t want very many people there, and I wanted it to feel like a potluck kind of thing. But as the planning went on, I realized this could be the moment to bring together all of the people who I really love. So, it turned into a very big event with lots of guests.
Haleh: We wanted our wedding to be “homemade.” And it was, but we never imagined how many people wanted to make the trek to Pennsylvania! As the RSVPs kept rolling in, it got harder to hold onto that homemade vision. The only reason we were able to do it in the end had everything to do with our incredibly talented friends. One of them, Norbert, did the flowers because he’d done them for all of our students’ graduations. Our other friend, Laura, is an incredible baker, so she did the cake. Another friend, Sam, designed the invitations, my uncle played guitar before the ceremony, and Anna’s brother wrote and played a processional. I organized people we knew to cook, and, ultimately, it was a potluck meal for 280 people.
Anna: She was super excited to plan it and do all of the organizing. My goodness, she took on so much. We decided to have it at the school because a few months before the wedding, they’d bought a new property, Foxfield — a beautiful, magical place. In the summer, our students go home, so there are typically all of these available rooms. It ended up being like a grand opening for the property, and we were welcoming it into our community.
Haleh: We operate the school with a group of people, so, for the wedding, everyone was just really excited to host. There are always annual fundraising galas and other events, so it’s not the most foreign experience to host like that. Foxfield is where we operate an organic cut-flower business in partnership with our school to provide our students with job-training opportunities that will serve them upon graduation from our program. The property is just incredibly beautiful. We had the ceremony in an old horse barn, the meal under a tent on the lawn, and the band played out of an old garage. A week before the wedding, you’d have seen me on a ladder in the barn, blasting down cobwebs with an industrial leaf blower. It was all really rustic.
Anna: I knew I was not going to wear a dress; I haven’t worn one since I was 12. But, I knew I wanted something feminine and with linen — breathable. I took a bunch of friends to the King of Prussia mall and we looked for hours. As a last resort, we went to Macy’s, and right there was a beige linen suit. It fit perfectly.
Haleh: I had a bridal appointment that was fun, but those dresses were like $2,000 and I couldn’t reconcile spending that much money on something I was going to wear one time. I found two secondhand dresses online: a long dress by BHLDN for $200 and a shorter dress by Pallavi Mohan. Because the ceremony was taking place in Pennsylvania in August, I knew it was going to be hot. That ended up being an understatement — it was the hottest day of the entire year by far.
Anna: We did a first look, and our photographer, Tara Beth, had us close our eyes and face away from each other. Before I turned to look, I was already crying. As was she.
Haleh: I cried a lot. I initially felt like a first look could have veered too staged or fake, but it was actually very, very emotional for us. She’s always been the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen, and right then she was so lovely and gorgeous.
Anna: She looked magical. The dress just fit her so perfectly.
Haleh: Our ceremony was officiated by a local priest, Nora. We met with Nora a couple of times a month in the year leading up to the marriage to talk about what it meant to be doing this together as women. She was really interested in exploring all of those issues with us.
Anna: Those conversations brought us closer, and a friendship evolved over the course of that year.
Haleh: The ceremony was built from the work that we’d done together. There were some readings and we wrote our own vows, but in such a way that they weren’t really vows — more so statements of intent, like “Do you intend to honor this person?” We spoke with each other and came up with a set of questions.
Anna: The decor was pretty simple. We rented chairs, a friend and I spent a morning hanging up lights, and there was a piano set up for my brother’s processional. There was a wooden box that a friend had made, and Haleh and I planted oak seeds in it during the ceremony. We also stood in front of a stone wall with a carpet on the floor. The beauty of the barn was that it was almost enough.
Haleh: Then, we had our cocktail hour. The bartender, Mike, was our friend and set up a table in the barn. Our other friend’s husband operated a brewery, so he supplied kegs and bottled beer while I got the rest from our local liquor store. I had to approximate a best guess regarding how much to get and what people would want — it was the same with the food quantities.
Anna: I didn’t even make it over to the food because we were so busy. I think I saw some dips, chips, cheeses, and different kinds of meats.
Haleh: For dinner, we initially thought of what food elements we’d want. Then, I made a sign-up sheet that I distributed to people in the houses here on campus. It was like, “We need 16 beef lasagnas, eight vegetarian lasagnas,” and anyone was able to sign up to make whatever they could kindly contribute. We had roast chicken from the livestock in our farm.
Anna: Lasagna was the one thing I wanted — lasagna and different salads. We have a greenhouse here, and, the morning of the wedding, a bunch of us cut fresh vegetables for the salads.
Haleh: I did worry at some point about whether or not we would be able to pull it off with the number of people who were coming. But we did, and there was plenty of food. More than plenty. It came together with help from the people around us — our community. We didn’t have to worry a lot about the budget because we had the venue, and so many of the things we needed were there already. The tables and tablecloths, for example, were already there from past graduations and galas. We were really lucky.
Anna: After dinner but before dancing, we had a cake-cutting moment, which was very awkward. The cake had three layers with flowers on it.
Haleh: It was lemon- and blackberry-flavored. Our friend, Laura, made just one for the cake-cutting and a ton of sheet cakes in the same flavor, so there was plenty for everyone.
Anna: We danced in the same area as our cocktail hour — the band set up in a shed. Haleh was the one who’d found the Bachelor Boys Band online. Soon after, we ended up going to Philly for a showcase they offered. There were eight of them in the band, and three were playing brass instruments. They were amazing. We basically told them, “Pretend we’re a seventy-year-old couple,” and to just play Etta James, Al Green, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder.
Haleh: For our first dance, we had them play Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” — from the ‘30s. We did a modified foxtrot and I ended up changing into my second dress before the meal — it was just so hot. Anna and I danced the whole time to every song. Then, there was this one moment. Our neighbor makes fireworks. Sometimes, when they’re being tested, we see them. Right then, fireworks started going off from the shed, near the band, and I thought, “What a crazy coincidence.”
Anna: Our friends were very crafty and they just set it up themselves, but it caused the police to come to our wedding. I didn’t know whether we needed a permit or not, but, technically, you’re supposed to notify the police if you’re going to set off fireworks.
Haleh: When the band stopped, our friend Andy DJ’ed an after-party back in the barn. There was a swimming pool on the property, so, inevitably, someone was like, “Everybody in the pool!”
Anna: Then, we went back to dancing and back into the water when it would get very hot again — back and forth.
Haleh: And that’s how we ended the night — in this big, empty barn with strung-up fairy lights. People got crazy and it was really fun.