Articles on the joy of collecting often end with this happy mantra: Buy what you love.
The second-best suggestion: Use and enjoy what you have gathered - regularly. Many antiques from the last two or three centuries are still priced under $100, which will lift your heart every time you bring them out.
Around my house, a lot of the collections - stacks of plates, shelves of glass, boxes of silver - fall into the category of tableware. The holidays are a great time to mix the real antiques with favorite new pieces as you decorate the mantel or set up a buffet.
In addition to what we acquire, many of us have inherited treasures - vintage linens with a crocheted edge or old wineglasses from grandmother's dining room. Using them for special occasions becomes a celebration of remembrance.
Nothing says Christmas like red and green glass, which was made throughout the 20th century by numerous American manufacturers. A common collectible easily picked up at the antiques mall, salad plates - also found in great golds and blues - can be used for everything from appetizers to dessert.
Firms like Heisey also made brilliant red goblets that light up a table setting. My daughter has started a hope-chest collection that looks great mixed and matched with antique white ironstone tableware.
Another Albertson staple during the holidays are vintage green-glazed stoneware bowls from the 1920s to 1940s. Potteries - McCoy in Ohio, for example - made sets with various diameters in a unifying molded pattern. Market prices range from $20 to $60.
Massed on a high shelf, the pottery brightens a kitchen but can easily be brought down for meals. The smallest sizes are perfect for soups or chili - the stoneware is heat-resistant. The larger versions can hold punch or eggnog, or be filled with colored balls as a centerpiece. You can look for matching green pitchers and canisters to hold flowers.
Equally festive for casual meals is modernistic mid-20th-century pottery, available at antiques shows and auctions. Check out the styles in Michael Pratt's
Mid-Century Modern Dinnerware
(Schiffer Books, $39.95).
California's Catalina Pottery made a knockout red glaze, and Tamac of Oklahoma had a Frosty Pine green for their groovy amoeba-shaped dishes. Hollydale's Malibu Modern dishes came in red, chartreuse and Grotto Green.
Glidden Pottery, which flourished in New York from 1940 to 1957, made colorful canape plates and cocktail-party serving dishes, often painted with whimsical people and animals. Put together sets from eBay offerings - hardest to find are the plates decorated with Christmas trees.
For a more formal dinner, my family starts with crimson-and-gold-edged Lenox dishware. (The old pattern was rounded up to an even service for 12 through an online glass- and china-replacement company.)
Then we add pieces from the collections cupboard: mid-19th-century American pressed-glass goblets; circa 1825 Old Paris porcelain with grapevine borders; cranberry-glass fingerbowls; or red-printed English romantic transferware from the 1850s.
A tip for safely using antique china and glass: Wash and dry by hand, no matter what the dishwasher promises. Old silver or silverplate should be rinsed as soon as possible to avoid food tarnishing. And if you have any doubts about a decorated surface, put a clear glass plate or paper doily under the food.
If you are lucky enough to have family linens, this is the time to bring out the napkins that a great-aunt edged with lace. For a modern setting, a few yards of vintage designer fabric in the right colors can be made into a tablecloth or a tree skirt.
If you find yourself needing new ideas on how to arrange the holiday table, think old instead and take an inspirational journey south for the 2008 Yuletide Tour at Winterthur. The Delaware house museum has extended hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with special "Late till 8" nights Tuesdays in December. (Information:
» READ MORE: www.winterthur.org
or call 800-448-3883.)
A highlight of this year's 15-room tour is a series of custom "tablescapes" designed by Tiffany & Co. Belle Epoque dinners for families like the du Ponts were a time to display special china, glass and silver.
Anyone who cherishes family flatware will enjoy "Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005," organized by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, on view at Winterthur through Feb. 1. The exhibition explains how civilized people solved the problem of conveying food from plate to mouth.
"Winterthur is the only venue to which 'Feeding Desire' has traveled," says Jeff Groff, director of public programs, "and we hope that many who missed . . . the show in New York will take advantage of the opportunity to see [it] in conjunction with our Yuletide exhibition.
"They are supremely complementary exhibitions that are sure to send visitors home full of inspiration for their own holiday tables."