Ghosts of Holidays Past

ghost linensThis is the time of year that we all start thinking about setting a nice table for whatever holidays we celebrate. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Thanksgivukkuh, Christmas, Kwanzaa—you name it, it involves a meal and we want the meal to be special in both the foods served and in presentation.

It will surprise no one who has been following along, that I like to use vintage linens on the table at these big holidays. A few of the items I have belonged to one or another ancestor but, mostly, I’ve accumulated my linens second hand.

Over the years, I piled up dozens of damask linen napkins to use at parties and many tablecloths as well.  Good-quality damask is like no other fabric—it is heavy and crisp and has a beautiful sheen. It looks good in any setting and doesn’t compete with the rest of your serving items.

Another benefit of these beautiful linens is that you can find superior quality at very good prices—just take a look at Etsy or eBay and you’ll find tablecloths in all sizes and napkins ranging from cocktail size through the huge size that some people call “lapkins.” The lapkins were often as big as 25 inches square and were used both to cover expensive clothing, in a time when laundry was a lot more difficult to do and as a display of wealth and refinement.

One problem with buying vintage linens, though, is that most of them have been used and, if they were used for meals, they probably have some sort of spots or stains.

In my time as a purveyor of vintage linens, I’ve learned a lot about getting stains out; most of the techniques involve patience and a willingness to let the items soak, for long hours, in hot water and whatever concoction I’m using.

I’ve also learned, though, with my own linens, to leave the spots alone. I see it this way—the spots on the cloths came from a family having fun. They were sitting around a holiday table, maybe the only time all year they’d get together. The men, at least in my family, were talking about the farm and the herd and the women were talking about how they shouldn’t have another piece of pie but maybe just a sliver . . .

The kids were at the “children’s table” in the kitchen and, mostly, glad to be there because the grown-ups sat around the big table FOREVER, talking and talking and drinking coffee and talking.

And in all of that family time, things got spilled on the tablecloth. Maybe it was when the gravy boat was going one direction and the cranberry sauce headed the other. Or someone was laughing and sloshed the coffee.

And the spills left the shadow of a spot. The proof, really, that a good time was had and people weren’t worried about the furnishings when there were stories to tell and relatives to get caught up with.

So I pretty much think of the faint spots on my table linens as the ghosts of good times past. Good times that left little marks on the linens but made a far greater impression on the people around the table.


42 thoughts on “Ghosts of Holidays Past

  1. what a true and well put story and what a great image. My big white Christmas table cloth has stars and moons woven into it and is decorated during memorable meals by gravy and cranberry jelly;0)

  2. Oh, I am glad to know that I have lapkins in my linen cupboard. Not much used these days but definitely a very sensible size. Ditto with table cloths. I love them but they are rarely used, as I find table mats easier for our little family. However, when the large table cloth does make an appearance, I will remember your post and feel free to enjoy the markings 🙂

  3. It was a really big deal in our family to graduate to the “big” table. The real china, the large tea goblets and the white table cloth with napkins were on that table. My mother had to know you would behave before graduating. It was a real privilege to eat with the grown ups and be trusted. Still there were spills and Mom never fussed. Thanks for bringing back some nice memories!

    • It’s funny–I don’t think we ever cared about moving up. We had fun in the kitchen and I think we thought the grown-ups were boring. But, when I was 30 and went to my cousin’s wedding and we STILL were at a children’s table–that kind of ticked me off!

  4. What an excellent attitude to have! I agree that the most important thing is that you’re having fun, I’ve never been one to worry about spills and stains. I love the photo of your family imposed on the linen. I can’t wait to get a flat with my boyfriend so we can start investing in things like table cloths for our own table and have people over for dinner 🙂 xx

  5. Pingback: Celebrate In Style: National Laundry and Linen Week! | Love Those "Hands at Home"

  6. From my perspective, all those stained damask tablecloths that get banished from tables are wonderful for dyeing. The woven patterns add subtlety to the colors. What I remember about the tablecloths of my youth was their smell. My aunt stored hers in a cedar chest, so the napery always smelled of cedar.

  7. Yes, I love the way you superimposed a photo on the linens. This post made me think of the word ‘palimpsest,’ which is when you can see the lines of another drawing under a painting–which is exactly what you’re talking about here. And family life and meals are indeed a work of art.

  8. Holidays do bring out the ghosts of tables past. I am using a crocheted lace tablecloth that I don’t think is vintage but looks it. And napkins that my mother wove. And the gorgeous silver given to me by both grandmothers. And my mother in laws gravy bowl. And pressed glass goblets from one grandmother. Setting a lovely table is a ritual that I adore. Happy Thanksgiving my friend!

  9. I love this post and your way of seeing things.
    Though I’m not sure how to regard the two big holes in the vintage chenille-spread-turned-tablecloth, so I try to hide that side from guests. Unfortunately, the occasional guest goes to the wrong seat, and encounters the holes…

  10. You’ve inspired me. I’ll look out some of our old family tablecloths for the feast. They may get stained. But they’re not much good sitting in a dark cupboard either.

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