Thanksgiving Day, annually celebrated throughout the United States on the fourth Thursday of November, is the one holiday that retains its heritage as a day for family members to find joy in each other’s presence, to prepare and eat wonderful food, to revel in the rich colors and aromas of the season, and above all, to feel and express gratitude for the abundance of blessings in their lives.
Perhaps because exchanging gifts has never been the focus of Thanksgiving, this day has not succumbed to commercialization of so many other holidays, instead remaining a favorite time of year for family celebrations. The legend of the Pilgrims and the Indians laying aside their differences and sitting down together to celebrate the harvest and to give thanks for the land’s bounty makes sense to children and becomes a beloved framework for all Thanksgiving celebrations for years to come.
Although the holiday is replete with symbols — Pilgrims, Indians, cornucopias and sheaves of wheat — the most important and essential part of any Thanksgiving celebration is the Thanksgiving table. It represents the gathering itself, the place where family and friends meet, often over great distances, to reflect on the year’s blessings. Some people set the table with the family’s most beautiful china and crystal, pressed linens and shining silver; others gather outdoors around a picnic table and use paper plates. It is this table, surrounded by loved-ones, with plates over-filled with favorite foods, that dominates memories of Thanksgivings past and causes anticipation every fall.
Making the table especially beautiful and meaningful at Thanksgiving is important, and it does not have to be difficult, as two Columbia ladies demonstrate. By using what they have on hand already or what they could find or create themselves, together with a little imagination and a dash of personal style, Evie Bunge and Janie Edwards have fashioned creative centerpieces that help carry on their families’ cherished Thanksgiving traditions.
Evie and John Bunge plan to continue a family tradition that started at least 15 years ago when Evie’s father, Clarence Davis, shot a ring neck pheasant while on a hunting trip. The family had the pheasant mounted, and it stands year-round on the Davis’ sideboard in their entrance hall. Because its gorgeous iridescent feathers are beautifully suited to autumn decor, the stately bird is moved to the Bunges’ dining room in November and has been used as an elegant centerpiece on many of the family’s Thanksgiving tables over the years. The pheasant stands on a platform and is covered with shiny feathers of brown, copper, green, gray-blue, tan and black. Its neck is ringed in white and its head is green and indigo with touches of red and tan.
Using the pheasant as the focal point, Evie then surrounds it with fall leaves, vines and whatever natural elements she can find in her yard and garden. “I’m a sticks and twigs kind of girl,” says Evie. “I just do a little hunting and gathering, and use what I can find.”
This year Evie plans to incorporate some bittersweet vine she and Jeannie Powell, her sister, and Rosalyn Davis, her mother, gathered together in the mountains. The vine is a plant she loves to use when she can find it because of its yellow and orange berries.
“I’ll use lots of bittersweet and greenery and work it around the pheasant and down the table.” Evie also suggests tucking the stems of her greenery into floral water picks, then hiding them among the leaves and vines so that the centerpiece stays fresh longer. Once the leaves, vines and twigs are in place, she may add a few gourds and mini pumpkins for color, completing a beautiful and elegant natural centerpiece.
Evie attributes her love of natural table settings to her mother, Rosalyn, who she says does beautiful flower arranging. Evie’s favorite memory of Thanksgiving growing up is of everyone in the kitchen, cooking together. “Then, once the food was under control, Mom would hand a pair of clippers to me and one to Jeannie and tell us to go out and gather things outside to use for the centerpiece,” says Evie. “My mother always made sure we were not intimidated by making our own arrangements; you can use anything you find.”
Evie and John often host her family for Thanksgiving, usually 16 to 20 people including their two grown children Hannah and Rick, her parents, Jeannie’s family and her brother Chuck with his family. The Bunges’ dining table itself was Evie’s grandmother’s — a drop leaf table that can seat 14 people easily.
“I love to see the wood,” says Evie, who uses place mats rather than a tablecloth and sets the table with her family’s china. “We eat a very traditional meal.” The women in the family split the cooking duties, preparing turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, rice, broccoli and sweet potato casseroles, pumpkin and pecan pies.
Because of her fondness for candlelight, Evie likes to serve the Thanksgiving meal around 6 p.m. To decorate the sideboard in the couple’s entrance hall, she uses a grapevine cornucopia of her own making, an idea given to her by her friend, Cricket Newman.
“You use a tomato cage,” describes Evie, “and wire one end together, curling it up to make the pointed end of the cornucopia. Then you spray paint the cage a dark brown.” She then wraps the cage with 4-inch-wide wired grape vine garland from a craft store, then uses dried okra, gourds, Indian corn, artichokes and other seasonal items to tumble out of the open end of the cornucopia. “It couldn’t be easier,” she says. “You just use whatever you can find at the time, whatever looks good!”
Of course, the setting and even the food are not the most important things about Thanksgiving. Being with family is the thing Evie likes most. For the Bunges, “It’s just a more relaxed, slower paced holiday, when you can spend time visiting.”
Thanksgiving with another Columbia family isn’t as much about the relaxed, slower pace as it is about the fun. Janie and Walter Edwards have hosted their family’s Thanksgiving celebration for at least 20 years, most recently at their cottage on Lake Murray. Always present to celebrate are their two adult daughters, Elizabeth and Lawson, Lawson’s husband Emmet and their young children, Katherine and William, as well as Janie’s sister, Margaret, and her family.
“There is one prerequisite for coming,” laughs Janie. “You have to wear a costume.” Anything goes for the costumes, as long as they have a Thanksgiving theme.” One year Janie came as pumpkin pie, wearing a pumpkin-colored pashmina shawl and cotton tubing from a beauty supply store on her head as whipped cream.
“That same year, unbeknownst to each other,” claims Janie, “both Walter and our grandson, William, came as stuffing, wearing tan turtlenecks filled with lumpy rolled up socks. Another Thanksgiving, both Elizabeth and Katherine came as the Mayflower, each wearing a calendar turned to the month of May and festooned with garlands of flowers.”
Janie also remembers her nephew, Richard, coming one year in a full-length turkey suit and another year with a classic arrow-through-the-head cap on top. While Janie’s niece, Courtenay, came as “Punk”ahontas. “My sister’s grandson, Patrick, came one year as an Indian in full war paint that didn’t come off for days,” she reminisces. “He was delighted!”
In full costume, Walter often pulls the younger grandchildren on a hayride. Last year they had a Thanksgiving scavenger hunt, and the year before, Walter brought in huge round bales of hay for the children to roll around the yard. Rumor has it that Janie may be going this year as Leftovers, with roasting pans of faux turkey and saran wrap attached. The Edwards’ meal takes place around 2 p.m., and they have traditionally eaten it on the cottage’s big wrap-around porch. The grandchildren are in charge of making creative place cards for everyone and placing them around the tables themselves. The dinner is deliciously Southern and traditional — turkey (both baked and fried), cornbread dressing, rice and gravy, green beans from Walter’s garden, oyster pie, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole and a variety of desserts to please each person’s palate — but the table’s centerpiece is unique.
Years ago, Janie came up with the idea of making a Thankful Tree, and it is this tree that takes center stage on the Edwards’ Thanksgiving table. The tree is actually a grouping of three manzanita branches — manzanita is native to the American southwest and is prized by crafters for its unique twisty shape, smooth orange or red bark, and strength when dried.
Janie says, “I put the branches in a ceramic bowl made by my daughter, and filled the bowl with plaster of Paris, so the branches stand up like a tree.” Each year, Janie ties pieces of candy wrapped in bright Thanksgiving colors of reds, oranges, yellows and browns onto the branches with brightly colored yarn. “I usually have at least one hundred pieces,” Janie says.
The key to the centerpiece is that before anyone can take a piece of candy, he or she must take a strip of paper and write down something for which they are thankful and put it in the bowl at the base of the tree. Later in the evening, the family builds an outdoor campfire, the children make s’mores, and they read the strips of paper from the Thankful Tree aloud.
“Sometimes they’re sweet, and sometimes they’re funny,” says Janie. “When Elizabeth was younger, she put that she was thankful for her parents — sometimes.” Janie keeps the most meaningful strips and uses them year round as bookmarks for her Bible.
This year the family will have something else to be thankful for: a new son-in-law, Trey, who married Elizabeth this past August at the family’s lakeside property. For the intimate family wedding reception, the Edwards built a beautiful open air “dance hall.” So the Edwards family’s Thanksgiving this year will be held in the dance hall; the Thankful Tree will reappear on the reconfigured, larger table, and new memories will be made.
Family traditions are what make Thanksgiving so special for so many people. For some, it cannot be Thanksgiving without watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television or seeing Charlie Brown and his friends gathered outside at the ping pong table as they feast on toast, jelly beans and popcorn. Some like to watch as many college football games as possible and even play some touch football in the backyard, and others wake up early on the day after Thanksgiving to either hit the Black Friday sales or the woods for some hunting. Some cherish elegant family meals by candlelight and some dress in funny costumes and eat outdoors. But everyone knows that the most important tradition to celebrate at Thanksgiving is family and celebrating blessings together.
Adding flair to your Thanksgiving centerpiece, Step by Step
ABOVE: Steven Ford of Steven Ford Interiors starts his Thanksgiving tablescape by gathering a red linen tablecloth, a roll of wood-grained vinyl wallpaper, fall branches with leaves, pine cones, pumpkins, feathers and a fall table setting.
LEFT: Next, Steven covers the table with the red linen cloth, layering the wood-grained vinyl wallpaper to add a clever twist as an alternative to a classic table runner. He then places the pottery planter in the center of the table as a base. He adds decorative balls, pinecones and pumpkins or gourds. The pumpkins can be real or paper mâché. BOTTOM: To add height, Steven places fall branches and feathers. The combination of all of the materials adds texture, contrast and color to the tablescape. OPPOSITE: To finish the look, Steven sets the table with red stoneware plates and brushed metal napkin rings on plaid linen napkins. Pumpkin soup bowls complete the look. He then lights the fireplace to add a warm, cozy ambiance.