Four hundred years ago the Mayflower Colonists threw a feast to honor the Native Americans — including members of the Abenaki, Pawtuxet, and Wampanoag tribes — who had taught them the skills they needed to survive and prosper in their new environment. Though turkey wasn’t on the menu, the gathering of more than 100 dined on seal, lobster, and swan, all of which were readily available and commonly eaten. The group, who celebrated for three days, ate so much that at one point, a team was dispatched to kill an additional five deer. Though no celebration occurred in 1622 — a drought made food so scarce that Gov. William Bradford instituted a religious fast — the group was able to resurrect the tradition in 1623.
Although George Washington issued an official Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, Thanksgiving did not become a true national holiday until 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law designating the third Thursday in November as a fixed date for the event, “henceforth to be called ‘Thanksgiving Day.’”
Beyond offering a formal reminder to pause and be grateful, Thanksgiving, is, for some families, their only chance during the year to gather, hug, and share an amazing meal. It’s also a day steeped in beloved traditions that give the day its heart, soul, and memories.
The Marshall Family
Shortly after they married in 2006, Cristy and David Marshall felt the pull to establish some kind of Thanksgiving custom. “You know how it is when you’re first married,” says Cristy. “Your holidays are all mixed up, spent here and there. We really wanted a tradition of our own.”
After several failed attempts, Cristy read a magazine article that suggested covering the Thanksgiving table with an inexpensive white tablecloth and asking guests to write what they are thankful for directly onto the fabric. “We were having Thanksgiving that year at David’s parents, so I asked his mom if I could give it a try. She liked the idea, so I showed up with the tablecloth, cardboard to put underneath, and a package of Sharpies. We didn’t have a huge crowd, so at the end of the night it looked a little lonely, but I was excited about what it could become.”
Fourteen Thanksgivings and four children later, the Marshalls’ tablecloth is still going strong, serving as both a remembrance of past celebrations as well as a catalyst for guests to think about for what they are thankful. It’s great for small children as well, who may be too young to write but old enough to draw.
“We always spend several days leading up to Thanksgiving reading the memories,” says Cristy. “Some are really funny, like the year my son wrote that he was thankful for ninja swords or when someone was thankful for the chocolate turkeys that David’s aunt and uncle had brought. But the best part is that when it’s time for dinner, we feel like the people we’ve lost are still right there with us at the table.”
This year, although the extended Marshall family will be celebrating Thanksgiving at a resort in the Caribbean, Cristy plans on packing the tablecloth. “After all these years, I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without it,” she says.
The Milliken Family
Long before the Woodcreek area of Northeast Columbia had become a popular residential neighborhood, the shoreline of the community’s namesake lake was dotted with a few rustic vacation cottages. One, a rustic log and stone structure set on a small beach, was owned by Nancy and Bill Milliken, who used it a gathering spot for their young family. By the mid-1970s, as Nancy and Bill’s four children — Pam Milliken Reed, Susan Milliken Umbach, Tom O. Milliken, and Jim Milliken — married and had children of their own, the family decided to move Thanksgiving dinner to the lake. “We started with about 20 people, but now we’re up to about 50,” says Pam. “It’s a perfect place for a crowd.”
As the de facto organizer, Pam is charged with making drink, paper, and food assignments. Copies of menus from each year help her weed out the few dishes that didn’t make the cut and ensure there’s an ample supply of favorites. Family members get first dibs on bringing whatever dish they brought the year before and cooking — as opposed to purveying — is encouraged. “We serve all the classics as well as ratatouille, Key lime pie, and a pumpkin cheesecake with praline sauce that’s to die for,” she says. “The kids always make a chocolate cake.”
The food isn’t the only thing that’s classic. The cloth napkins and tablecloths, cutlery, platters, and serving bowls have all been used since the first year. Wine is sipped from elegant stemmed wine glasses in a pretty shade of green.
But beyond enjoying a fabulous meal, the Millikens use the day as a way to share family lore and celebrate their blessings. “The (now) older family members, like my father-in-law and my husband’s aunts, tell stories every year of how this tradition started and how it has evolved,” says Anna Milliken, who is married to Tom’s son, Tombo. “There is usually some sort of family history lesson presented as we gather for the family blessing. We have remembered those lost, celebrated engagements and birth announcements, and welcomed home those who have served our country. It’s tradition, it’s family and friends, and it’s just where we all want to be.”
The Neeley Family
Betsi Neeley Jordan gets a bit wistful as she describes Thanksgiving with her extended family, a group of about 70 aunts, uncles, and cousins. “We spread out tables on the banks of the Edisto River and eat right there,” she says. “It’s a beautiful setting that’s full of memories for all of us.”
The celebration takes place in the Sojourner Campground at Holman’s Bridge River Community, a tiny hamlet outside the town of Denmark, where the family has had a log cabin for more than 70 years. “It’s called the Neeley Big House, which is actually a bit of a misnomer,” says Betsi. “It’s a two-bedroom cabin. Nobody knows how it became known as the Big House, but it’s what we’ve always called it!”
Though dinner is composed of Thanksgiving favorites, one detail that makes it unique is that no one organizes the food. “It’s a feast, but we never know what we’re going to have,” Betsi says with a laugh. “One year no one brought a turkey; the next year we had four. We think of it as a true potluck. You just fill up the plate and know it will be delicious.”
Every family has its traditions; for the Neeleys, it’s a pre-dinner group singalong of spiritual songs such as “Shall We Gather at the River” and “When They Ring Those Golden Bells.”
“Daddy had nine siblings, and they were raised singing in parts,” explains Betsi. “We’ve held on to that custom.”
Just before the blessing, the group forms a circle and sings “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” Once the song has been completed, the senior member of the group calls on people to offer their reflections. “The whole day is an opportunity to sit back and think about how blessed we are to be celebrating in a beautiful place with people we love,” says Betsi. “It’s really a gift from God.”
The Jackson Family
Thanks to the travel limitations brought about by COVID-19, Thanksgiving 2020 was a challenging holiday for many Columbia families. Barbara and Tucker Jackson, who celebrated with their two adult children, Tucker and Anne, decided to use the pandemic as an excuse to transform their often casual small gathering into a lovely evening of food and learning. They’re also looking forward to re-creating it in 2021 and onward.
“To make the most of the quiet holiday, we pulled out the china, crystal, and silver; set a beautiful table; and printed a menu to commemorate the event,” says Barbara. “Each family member was responsible for cooking one or two dishes, so it really was a joint effort. At the end of the meal, I offered a short presentation on the history of Thanksgiving. This year someone else will take over the lecture part, but we’ll all still share cooking duties.”
The idea for the history lesson has its roots in a lecture that Barbara gave several years ago when the family lived in England. “Thanksgiving is part of our culture here in America. Although the British have heard of the pilgrims, they have no real concept of the true traditions and celebration,” says Barbara. “I was asked to give a brief talk about it to the students at the school where I was working. I was surprised at how much I hadn’t known.”
Fast forward back to America, where, just before the pandemic, Barbara attended a lecture about who had actually sailed on the Mayflower. “The passengers that we think of as Pilgrims actually referred to themselves as Saints,” Barbara says. “There was also a larger group that the Saints called Strangers who were emigrating for nonreligious reasons, as well as crew members and servants. The conversation introduced a lot of perspective. I realized for the first time that many Americans who trace their roots back to the Mayflower may not have descended from those seeking religious freedom. Yet we all should be proud of our very first brave British Americans.”
Barbara found the information remarkably relevant to today’s world; as a lifelong teacher, she couldn’t resist turning it into a lesson. “It reminded us to be thankful that we were together and healthy but also for those long ago travelers and the risks they took to start our wonderful country,” says Barbara. “We then said a special thanks for the America we all know and love.”
Pamela’s Oyster Dressing
This family favorite is made by Pam Reed’s daughter, Pamela.
2 cups diced onion
1 cup diced celery
10 garlic buds
1 stick (½ cup) butter, melted
2 heaping tablespoons chopped parsley
4 cups soft bread crumbs made from challah or another white loaf
2 pints small oysters, drained
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1 cup half-and-half
Saute onions, celery, garlic, and parsley in butter; when the vegetables are soft, remove the garlic and discard. Stir in half-and-half, salt, and pepper, then pour into a rectangular casserole. Add oysters, mix well, then top with the bread crumbs. Bake at 350 F for 45 minutes. Do not cover.
Aunt Ange’s Mac ’n Cheese
Members of the Neeley family can count on this comforting dish every year.
16 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (do not use pre-grated cheese)
1 cup macaroni
2 cans evaporated milk
Salt, pepper, garlic salt to taste
½ stick (¼ cup) butter
Boil macaroni in salted water until al dente, 7 to 9 minutes. While the macaroni cooks, grease a large, flat casserole dish and place the butter in the dish.
Drain the macaroni, and pour it, hot, into the casserole. Add salt, then stir until the butter has melted.
Add the cheese.
Stir together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then pour the mixture over the macaroni. Bake for 1 hour at 250 F, or until the middle is set.