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ENTERTAINING : Napkins and Centerpieces Add a Gracious Touch of Tradition and Charm

November 26, 1994|From Associated Press

Napkins are as essential to a fine holiday table as candlelight and crystal.

For centuries the charm of a well-laid table has captivated writers: In the 17th Century, Guillaume de Rebreviettes marveled at a table with "napkins disguised as several types of fruit and birds."

"I use my napkins whenever possible--not just during the holidays and on special occasions," said Pennsylvania collector Marlene Harris, who is determined to keep the fine art of napkin presentation alive.

"Perfectly folded, they send a message to guests that you took the time to extend a gracious welcome."

An indispensable part of the finest trousseaux, table linens were for centuries passed down just as ceremoniously as family jewels and silver.

Francoise de Bonneville, author of "The Book of Fine Linen," reports that her French homeland was one of the first countries to adopt the table napkin.

In fact, napkins as we know them date to 15th-Century Reims, a city legendary for its luxurious cloth. The court of Charles VII instituted a royal linen office to ensure that only the most glorious touailles-- or serviettes, as they were later called--graced the infant monarch's table.

Decades later in Italy, Catherine de Medicis created a stir by enlivening her banquets with woven damask designs.

Until at least the mid-18th Century, table napkins were much larger than we now use, in part because they often covered the entire body. They were knotted about the neck and, in some households, were even shared by adjacent diners.

For special occasions, professional folders fashioned them into everything from pheasants to mythological animals to trees.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white-on-white napkins, usually with embroidery and perhaps some openwork hemstitching, prevailed at dinner time.

In addition to linens being used to spice up a table, there is a long tradition of using centerpieces.

A silvery epergne, brimming with fruit and flowers, was once the mainstay of any elegant table, greeting guests in a charming, courtly way.

Isabella Beeton counseled readers a century ago that "flower arrangements should be low, so as not to inhibit conversation across the table."

She was one of the few of her time to do so. Most Victorian centerpieces were towering and lavish, brilliant showcases for flowers, palm fronds and fruit.

Though contemporary displays are considerably more diverse, the rules for concocting them are not. Color is a festive way to unify components. Silver makes an equally compelling focal point. Mixing assorted shapes or pieces from different periods creates visual interest as well.

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