Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Faces of Tradition

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2020, it’s more important than ever to remember the traditions that made this season so memorable in years past.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

While every holiday season brings with it a spirit of nostalgia, it feels like this year there’s an even greater need to connect with holidays past. This year has forced so many of us to adjust to what they’re calling “the new normal,” and as such there is something just a bit sweeter about reconnecting with the old normal.

Whether it’s a traditional holiday treat, a gift that evokes sunnier days behind and ahead or the simple act of giving to others, this year is the perfect time to salute the traditions that make the holidays so special.

LOCAL SINCE 1992 • Willow, her husband, Tom, and their son, Spencer, moved to Hilton Head Island from Long Island in the early ‘90s. They now live in Bluffton. When not making shortbread, Willow enjoys home decorating, spending time with friends, her dogs and visiting her son in San Francisco, who is in the wine business.

Willow Cole

Continuing her family’s gourmet Scottish shortbread tradition.

In Scotland, shortbread isn’t just a tradition. It’s a birthright. Every delectably buttery crumble is part of a legacy that stretches back into misty moors and craggy highland peaks. For Willow Cole (nee McGrain), her Heritage Shortbread is a gift steeped in tradition and shared with the world in the hopes of keeping that tradition alive.

“Shortbread always meant abundance, so the only time it came out was gift giving, weddings, or Christmas,” she said. “Every Scottish person has their own recipe they keep under lock and key.”

Her own recipe comes from her grandmother, Willow McGrain, and was closely guarded by her mother. “She would never share the recipe with me. As she aged, she would allow me to help with the recipe because I had to be her hands. After we lost her, I thought that would honor her and her heritage and just produce it locally.”

That local focus is as true now as it was when Willow started, with her main focus being area gift shops and department stores. “We like to keep our business local and honor our agreements with local businesses,” Willow said. But in the years since, the broad appeal of the McGrain family recipe and the iconic red packaging have made Heritage shortbread an ambassador not just for Scottish tradition, but for Hilton Head Island.

Along with stores all over the country, you’ll find Heritage Shortbread on shelves as far away as Japan, where it’s a hot Christmas gift item. “I’m so proud to represent Hilton Head and South Carolina across the nation, with every box we send,” Willow said.

And it’s all produced in their bakery on Hilton Head Island using that same time-tested recipe the McGrains made famous. And with the secrecy surrounding the recipe, what would the McGrains think of their progeny sharing it with the world?

“I think they would be happy I stayed true to the original recipe and the traditions,” Willow said. “I really take it seriously, honoring their lives, the heritage, where they came from and how strongly they believed in all of their heritage. I hope that they would see that I’m not taking this lightly.”

For those of us who have made a box of Heritage shortbread part of our own Christmas traditions, we can assure Willow she is doing the family legacy proud.

LOCAL SINCE 1980 • Millie Burke grew up in Rock Hill and now lives with her husband, David, on Hilton Head Island. She enjoys painting, running, designing and creating.

Millie Burke

Enhancing traditional events with a unique selection of hand-printed linens.

Perhaps the most sacred tradition of the holiday season is the simple giving of gifts. For many of us, that means searching through the gift store trying to find that one item that speaks to us. And when we find that perfect item, it’s usually one of the many offerings at Lowcountry Linens.

“Once people use our kitchen towels, they don’t go back. Besides the design and printing, they’re just great towels,” said Lowcountry Linens owner Millie Burke. With all due respect to the insanely soft and attractive raw materials on each towel, we have to give a little more credit to Burke’s inspired designs.

Honing her artistic eye as an interior designer in Boston, Burke came back to the Lowcountry 13 years ago with a thirst to try something new. Her family had a long tradition in the textile industry, and she had plentiful experience carving printing blocks and painting, so combining them just made sense.

Starting with hand-printed hand towels and kitchen towels, she built a company that captured attention quickly, landing her in Coastal Living magazine twice in her first year alone.

“It’s fun to start with nothing and see it grow into something,” she said. She started small with a few sales reps and a good connection to a textile factory and was soon in more than 500 retail stores.

“We’ve had great years and good years. I haven’t really had any bad years. Ironically, this is becoming one of our best years,” she said. “I think retailers are ordering more domestically. And we really are a domestic company. We do all the printing here.”

The product line continued to grow with the company – Burke estimates she has carved more than 300 different printing blocks because “I don’t know anyone else crazy enough to do it.” And whether it’s the iconic anchor which (ironically) launched the line or the new seasonal variations she introduces every year, each design is crafted by Burke and printed in the bustling workroom at the back of their Northridge retail shop.

“In the retail store we have our line and a few other product lines that work well with our products, along with more creative stuff that I hand paint,” she said. Particularly popular are the throw pillows, selected first based on quality and then decorated by hand. If a design works on a pillow, it gets carved and then added to a block. There are also the oft imitated but never duplicated oyster bowls.

“The designer oyster shells really took off,” she said, adding with a laugh. “You know it’s a good product when you have multiple people trying to copy your product.”

To those looking to copy her success, her advice is, “Expect to fail several times before you get it right. But if you feel strongly about it, check the market and do your homework. You’re going to have to gut it out in the beginning, but if you pay your dues, it will all work.”

Local since 1975 • Ed Duryea has been active in numerous community organizations since moving to the Lowcountry. He is a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto from Governor Carroll Campbell, “Citizen of the Year” from the S.C. School Boards Association and Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts.

Ed Duryea

Holiday bell ringing is a 40-year tradition for this lifetime volunteer.

There’s a phenomenon that has gained traction in recent years known as the “Christmas Creep.” A function of the changing times, this is the term for the manner in which the start of the Christmas season gradually shifts earlier each year. We believe this year it may have started in mid-September.

But with all due respect to the mid-autumn emergency of inflatable Santas at Lowe’s and peppermint lattes at Starbucks, there is only one true harbinger of the Christmas season. And that is the iconic Salvation Army kettle. Since 1891, a small army of bell ringers has been fanning out all over the country, reaching a ubiquity that has elevated it from simple fundraiser to an icon of the season.

For 40 years, Ed Duryea has been one of those bell ringers. No matter how low the mercury dips, you’ll find him behind the kettle helping the Salvation Army in its mission to improve people’s lives.

“I’ve been out there when it’s down in the 30s, but it’s fun. We learn to dress in layers,” he said. “I’ve been in Rotary for 45 years, and that’s the one project I get the greatest joy in doing. You get to talk to people coming in, you see people in a rush, and I get to stop them for a moment, wish them Merry Christmas and thank them for their support.”

For Duryea, the bell ringing is just part of a lifetime spent serving others. The recipient of last year’s “Lifetime of Leadership” award from the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Order of the Palmetto in 1992, he has been involved with everything from United Way to area schools in an almost fanatical desire to help others.

“Most of us are brought up looking at life as a way of getting things – we want a certain boat or car, but the more you own, the more it owns you. The real joy in life comes from giving of yourself,” he said. “I found out a long time ago that the more you give, the more you get. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the time through my work to be able to volunteer.”

With the pandemic throwing so much uncertainty at people, this year Duryea’s mission is more vital than ever.

“The opportunity to help in the Lowcountry is abundant. There’s never been a more opportune time to give of yourself,” he said. “This pandemic has put a lot of stress on families. I think it’s a great way to make a difference.”

And if you hear him ringing that bell, it’s never been easier to give. Salvation Army has rolled out a “virtual kettle” this year, letting you pledge online. A QR code on the kettle lets you make a contact-free donation through credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay.

(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)