Ghosts of Holidays Past

ghost linens

An older post that I dust off every couple of years to encourage you to dig out your grandma’s vintage table linens and USE them this holiday season!


This is the time of year that we all start thinking about setting a nice table for whatever holidays we celebrate. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, 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 all be 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.

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56 thoughts on “Ghosts of Holidays Past

  1. As you know, many of my family’s old tablecloths and napkins ended up in my dye pots. However, we use my MIL’s dozens of damask napkins every day. Most stains come off and they iron up beautifully. (My husband does the ironing.) A crisp cloth napkin can elevate a meal.

  2. Yes, I agree. Getting out the bleach and the chemicals to eliminate these pieces of history isn’t the way forward. However, I really would like to know how to iron damask cloth to any standard at all. It defeats me every time.

    • That’s made worse by the different kinds of damask–I can’t really identify them but I know some damask is very hefty and crisp, probably that which is all linen. Other damask is much softer(with cotton in it?) and I have a terrible time getting that to look good. In the olden days, the real linen damask would’ve been put through a cold mangle, not ironed at all . . .

    • Margaret, I like to iron natural fibers when they’re still damp. It gives a crisper look. some people use a light spray starch, but though they may look crisper, they’ll probably feel that way, too. I actually don’t mind the wrinkles as long as the napkin is soft and pliable. I loath the 100% polyester ones in some restaurants that feel scratchy to the touch. They may keep the food off of my lap, but I’m not encouraged to blot the corners of my mouth.

  3. I have many of my Grandmother’s old embroidered pillow cases, table clothes and napkins. Some of them not so fine quality, many stained. Just can’t depart with them. Love this post. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  4. Beautiful post, and a positive attitude for sure. If there is a shame corner, I need to sit there for a moment. I haven’t hosted a holiday meal in many a year, and even when I did, I hated to iron tablecloths. I had a few back in the day of family get-togethers but they didn’t have a rich history like yours, and when I downsized I donated them. When you make a cross country move and downsize, things just had to go. I hope whichever beautiful linens you pull out this week bring you great joy as you celebrate Thanksgiving with loved ones.. 🙂

    • No shame corners here! Tablecloths are really tough to get looking good–I just do my best and remind myself that, when the table is set, it’ll all look fine. Have a great holiday week, Judy!

  5. Your post is timely simply because it reminds me to be sure and put the best cloths and tableware away when my best and oldest friend arrives on Sunday for her annual week’s visit. She will inevitably knock something over. I also remove any delicate vases or other paraphernalia from her reach as although she is a delicate and beautiful woman she is also the most clumsy person I have ever met 🙂

  6. Beautiful post, Kerry! I have a damask tablecloth given to us by my aunt when we got married. My husband spilt red wine on it the very first time we used it! After 23+ years I cannot see the stain any more!

  7. I love the idea of vintage linen. This will be one of a few holidays that will be less than traditional. I have a pretty quilt on my table made from my fabric by a good friend and placemats I made a few years ago. We will be having pizza for our dinner this year. No cooking or cleanup. With all our moving, vintage was not something that comes naturally. 😉 I did inherit some good silver and pretty dishes that I treasure but pizza isn’t the meal for that. I do have holiday napkins I made myself. The stains won’t show on the autumn print. 😉 I love the first photo up there. Hope your Thanksgiving is filled with grace and peace. Enjoy the day.

      • My sister is having her meal pre-cooked at the market. I’m just not ready for that but I see no point in a huge meal that we eat on for weeks. It was fine when there were 17 or 18 for dinner. These days, just feed me something simple and let me enjoy your company. 🙂

        • That sounds good to me, too, Marlene. It’s a lot of work for one meal. We’ve ordered from Whole Foods in the past as they also offer a vegan meal, but Mike likes to cook so prefers making a few things himself. We order a Tofurky which is surprisingly good. Our friends always bring the pies along with ice cream and whipped topping. The boys each help Mike with a dish, and I have fun setting the table, arranging flowers, putting out a puzzle, etc. I’ve scaled back on many things over the years. It makes life a lot less stressful.

          • I have never figured the need for a huge meal unless your are feeding many. In my last marriage we would have at least 17 for dinner and they were all meat eaters. I was younger then but finally went buffet style when they started bringing home significant others and then their families. Thanksgiving was a bit anti-climactic as we did our big meal the next day for our birthday boy. This year, my niece for the first marriage is looking for a place to hide out from her in-laws. She and the 2 or 3 daughters and husband (of sorts) will spend Christmas here and bring some food. My daughter keeps saying we are going to the Bahamas for Christmas to avoid the work. 🙂 I don’t mind some of the work and don’t like the heat. 😉 So I will do it one more year while I still can and enjoy every minute. I love the gathering. 😉

  8. Thank you Kerry for the reminder to love what is, stains and all. The stains do bring back stories and if we can’t remember, we could make up a fun story – I know you like to do that! And thank you for the connection to your washing linens page. I’ve been wanting to ask you your washing wisdom. This Thanksgiving I hope we find a stain or two on the linens and be grateful of the memory.

  9. Kerry, you have a wonderful attitude about things. We’ve become such a disposable society in recent years. It’s nice to bring out quality linens from years back, although like Marlene, with all the moving around we did, I don’t have anything like this from my past. I do enjoy setting a nice table, though. Whenever I visit Antiques Colony, I thumb through the linens and think of you. Most of the vendors there (over 100 I think) offer a variety of furniture, pottery and ephemera, but one vendor only sells linens. They’re hung on clothes hangers, beautifully pressed and always inviting.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. I remember linen tablecloths with wine stains from when I was a little girl. I have an autumn Vera tablecloth probably from the late 60s or early 70s that my mother bought that I like to use for Thanksgiving. Very colorful and would be hard to spot a stain. Happy Thanksgiving!

  11. Happy Thanksgiving Kerry! If I used old linen for a tablecloth, I might as well just dye it red to start with, because it is a certainty that I will dump a glass of red wine all over it.

    • Oh, dear! That makes me remember the time my husband knocked over a glass of red on my sister’s white carpet, in her brand new house! The trick with club soda really works!

  12. Love this: “the faint spots on my table linens as the ghosts of good times past”
    While I always use cloth or linen napkins / placemats / tablecloths, I have not brought out my grandmother’s vintage linens. I will do my best to get them out this year AND take a photo or two, just for you, Kerry.
    Thank you for this reminder

    • Oh, I hope you do! Both use the linens and let me see photos! You’re lucky to have those items from family members and you would think of them every time you picked up a napkin!

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