One of Sandra Allison’s favorite phone calls usually comes sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “When I hear one of my sons say, ‘Mom, will you and Dad be in town for New Years?’ I know what’s coming,” she says with a laugh, “a New Year’s Eve dinner in our home. I can’t imagine a better way to ring in the New Year than with family.”
Sandra does not remember exactly what year her three sons, David, Greg, and Jack — and now their three wives as well — began spending New Year’s Eve in Columbia, but she knows it has been long enough to have an established set of traditions. “We all dress up a bit and also set a pretty table for family dinners; for New Year’s Eve I use white china with a gold rim,” says Sandra. “Heather, Greg’s wife, lends me her gold chargers, which really look nice, and she brings an appetizer. Carolina, Jack’s wife, is super creative, so she helps with decor. And Jennifer, David’s wife, makes amazing breakfast casseroles.”
Crystal goblets for wine and water add sparkle to the table; a close inspection reveals that they do not all match, which is a favorite story in the Allison family. “In an attempt at equitable distribution of her estate, John’s mother split everything in half, including her crystal stemware,” shares Sandra, smiling. “John and his brother each received three of this and three of that. We call them the mix and match family glasses!”
The family enjoys other traditions as well, some old, some new. In 2017, for instance, Sandra repurposed the calligraphy place cards from the rehearsal dinners of both Carolina and Jack as well as Heather and Greg by stringing them onto pretty ribbon and hanging them on the back of each chair to mark that person’s seat. Votive candles, which have always decorated the mantle, now flicker from deep green glass holders, which have been custom made by Carolina.
“Carolina had them engraved in a pattern that matches a set of antique juice glasses that we often use for water at family dinners,” says Sandra. “They fit beautifully into this room.”
And what a room it is. Situated along one of the long sides of the house, the dining room is filled with architectural delights, including an antique fireplace mantle from England with dentil molding detail. A set of French doors opens onto a picture-perfect Charleston-style garden. What appears to be wallpaper is actually Venetian fabric by Fortuny in the 17th century Sevres design that was installed by the home’s second owner.
“When we looked to buy the house, the first thing I said to the former owner when I walked into this room was how much I adored the wallpaper,” laughs Sandra. “He looked at me and said, ‘This is not wallpaper,’ and went on to explain about the Fortuny family and their fabric artistry.” It turns out that this fabric is so rare that when word of its existence reached a member of the Fortuny company, he called and inquired about visiting. “We knew it was special, but he told us that it’s actually priceless,” says Sandra. “I’m glad we like it so much!”
In the dining room this year, Sandra has set the votives into a lacy veil of smilax, which curls gracefully around each candle and spills over the mantle. A lush but low arrangement of greenery mixed with white roses and lilies fills a long, narrow glass container and gives the table a soft but tailored look.
“I can always count on Cricket Newman for a centerpiece that is simple but beautiful,” says Sandra. “This room looks best with lots of greenery, and she gets that. She also knows how to make it full without overwhelming the table.”
White candles and pressed napkins maintain the monochromatic color scheme, which is brightened by glittering noisemakers tucked into each place setting with organza ribbon. One glossy serving board sparkles with silver Champagne chillers and wine coasters while another displays a towering coconut cake and festive petits fours, all decorated with a sprinkling of silver dragees, confections with a hard outer shell. The family’s favorite dessert, though, is not on display.
“When John and I married, a friend gave us a beautiful crystal cruet as a wedding gift,” explains Sandra. “It’s been transformed into a container for an ice cream topping we call ‘Mother’s Mix’ that we keep around that’s equal parts Kahlua and Amaretto. With a few toasted almonds on top, it’s delicious!”
Although New Year’s Eve dinner is fancy, it is usually not a long affair, ending hours before midnight. “Most years, the children have plans later in the evening, so they’ll come for an early dinner and Champagne, then head out,” says Sandra. “For us, it’s a perfect arrangement. We get to have dinner as a family, but they still have their fun!”
To make sure everyone’s year starts with good luck, Sandra usually serves a special soup chock full of black-eyed peas and collards. “If no one is going out, we’ll add pork tenderloin or steaks to the menu,” Sandra says. “But either way, we always have dessert.”
For the Allisons, though, New Year’s Eve dinner is not just a family celebration. Instead, it is the culmination of a full year of family celebrations. Since the whole family is generally in town for Christmas, the family tends to gather on New Year’s Day as well. Sandra also hosts distinct birthday celebrations for each of her “six” children; she is so close to her daughters-in-law that she considers them her own.
“Everyone has their favorite cake and, for the girls, we serve dinner on china decorated with pink roses that was my mother’s,” says Sandra. “It was her first set of china, and I treasure it. The boys’ birthday dinners are served on Spode Woodland china, which I began collecting when they were in college. It’s decorated with different animals and hunt scenes, so of course each boy still chooses his favorite each year!”
Just as the boys have their favorite pieces, so do the girls, thanks to Sandra’s commitment to letting her daughters-in-law choose the pitchers, serving trays and glassware, and other pieces for the table whenever it is time for something new. “I began asking for their opinions because I wanted them to someday inherit things they adore,” says Sandra. “But I benefit from their good taste. Using those stylish pieces keeps everything looking fresh!”
As the year rolls on, so do the family gatherings, which include also being together at the Masters; the Carolina Cup, a more than 50-year tradition for Sandra and John; and Thanksgiving. “Oh, that’s a fun one,” says Sandra about the latter. “We’re a divided family, so I make both a garnet velvet cake with black accent frosting and a tiger cake to make everyone happy.” Sandra serves Thanksgiving dinner on the Woodland china, but the turkey arrives at the table on a platter that has been in John’s family for generations. The family spends the weekend together watching football, including the Clemson/Carolina game; hunting; fishing; and just having fun.
“Everyone gets along, so we all treasure a family meal,” says Sandra. “For me, the key has been to let the children know when we’d like to have them well in advance and not to bother them too much during the other times.” Sandra also happily invites each daughter-in-law to contribute something to the weekend, in the form of appetizers, decor, or even breakfast the next morning.
When Christmas rolls around, Sandra and John give the girls’ parents first dibs on Christmas Day, preferring to gather on the 26th, Boxing Day. “It’s become a real tradition for us,” explains Sandra. “I usually make short ribs with roasted vegetables, with a nice salad, rice, and dessert. It’s a meal we all love.”
For anyone who wonders how Sandra and John manage to gather eight busy people more than a dozen times each year, Sandra says that her grandmother shared the secret with her many years ago. “She told me to always treat your family like company and your company like family. Be relaxed, but make sure the food looks and tastes good, and everyone will enjoy their meal. It’s good advice, and I’ve tried to stick with it.”