I have a troubled relationship with napkins. Not that I don't use them - I do, lots of them, and only cloth. Those little paper squares? Please God, no. Like trying to dry off after a shower with a kleenex.
Washing? I'm a fanatic. Every time they're used. Ironing? Not so much. And my staff is not much help. (That would be Ally the dog who, while willing, is lacking opposable thumbs and consequently is not adept at ironing, and Wally, who, while he is not deficient in the opposable thumb department has zero interest in ironing, or anything to do with laundry other than how his is folded - by someone else, natch).
And here's the crux of the problem: Napkin rings.
Every article about cooking for Thanksgiving has advice about setting the table, and they're all hip-happy about napkin rings, talking about how they make the table much more elegant, and show how much you care. Puhleeze.
You know the history of napkin rings, right? They were invented so you could tell your napkin from other people's, and use it again. For a week. Since laundry was only done once a week. The mind reels.
While I appreciate that I'm not wiping my lips with someone else's greasy used napkin, probably crawling with germs, I'm not keen on wiping my lips with my own greasy used napkin, either.
Now that you know their history, when you put napkin rings on your dinner table, what message do you think you're sending? Are your guests thinking "Hmmm, I wonder if I'm using someone else's old napkin...or if someone else will use mine after I'm done?"
It's not about decor, darlings, it's about decorum.
You can read a history of napkin rings here. Not a scholarly discourse, no citations, and I'm not sure how much is fact, how much conjecture, how much rumor.
So much of what we take as truth is not. Remember the story of the newlywed woman who cut the ends off her ham before she put it in the oven? When her newly minted husband asked her why, she said, "Oh, but that's the right way to do it! It's the way my mom always did it."
So he asked her mom (his mother-in-law), and she said, "That's the way my mom always did it."
So he asked her mom, his wife's grandmother, and she said, "I had to cut the ends off. My pan wasn't big enough."
Moral: be careful what you take for granted, what you take as truth.
Oh and please don't get me started on vintage napkins. Some are beautiful, well bleached. Clearly clean. Some are full of stains and gross.
New napkins: polyester? No thank you. It's like trying to mop something up with a plastic bag. 100% cotton please. Or well-washed linen. And for God's sake don't starch your napkins, they are for dabbing your lips, not exfoliating them.
Some yahoo recommends in his Setting The Thanksgiving Table article (in a fancy decorating magazine that really should know better) that you use paper napkins in napkins rings to save on laundering. If you really want to save time and effort at Thanksgiving, tell people to stay home.
But if you're having guests, treat them like guests. Real napkins, real smile, real joy in your heart. Really.