How to clean up common holiday messes

Expert tips for removing wax, wine, and other stains

Last updated: November 2014

Before everyone arrives

Dealing with dusty decorations, polishing Grandma’s beloved silver platter, getting last year’s candle wax off menorahs and candlesticks, cleaning stained tablecloths—there’s always plenty to do around the holidays. So we asked our cleaning and textile experts how to make the prep work easier and faster. They offered advice about what to do before company arrives and after the last guest has left but their stains remain.

Removing wax from candlesticks and menorahs
Place silver or other metals in the freezer until the wax hardens, then gently scrape it off with a plastic spatula. If wax remains, pour boiling water over the item or immerse it in a pot of boiling water, making sure any felt covering on the base remains dry. For glass or wood, point a blow-dryer at the wax and then blot the melting wax with a paper towel, but be careful not to overheat wood because it can crack.

Freshening up sheets, towels, and linens
There’s no need to rewash clean guest room sheets and towels that haven’t been used in months. Just toss them in the dryer on low heat for 15 minutes. And if you don’t want fold lines on your freshly ironed tablecloths, roll them up on empty wrapping-paper tubes.

Dusting an artificial Christmas tree
Set up the tree and spread out a sheet at its base to catch debris. Cover the vacuum’s upholstery attachment with a piece of hosiery or mesh netting fastened with a rubber band. Starting from the top of the tree and moving down, gently vacuum on the lowest setting, holding the attachment about an inch away from the branches to remove dust and cobwebs. Still dingy? Check the manufacturer’s website for any wipe-down tips.

Dusting artificial wreaths
Hold a blow-dryer, set on a low speed and the cool setting, about 10 inches from the wreath and then fluff. A soft feather duster may also work, or try the Christmas tree dusting tip.

Cleaning glass ornaments
Surface decorations are usually applied with water-soluble paint, so avoid treating them with soap, water, and cleaning solutions. Use a soft feather duster instead.

Caring for silver
Remove tarnish with a polishing mitt or by applying silver cleaner with a damp sponge; buff dry. Washing by hand is usually recommended, but there are lots of no-nos to keep in mind.

  • Don’t soak silver for long periods because non-silver parts can rust. And the salt and acids in leftover food particles can stain or pit the silver.
  • Never wash silver and stainless together because a chemical reaction between the metals can cause pitting.
  • Avoid lemon-scented detergents because they can damage silver.
  • Never pour detergent directly on silver. Instead, add a mild detergent to water, wash and rinse thoroughly, and dry right away with a soft cloth to prevent spots.
  • Don’t leave silver out; air accelerates tarnishing. Instead, store silver in a clear, heavy, sealable plastic bag

The aftermath

Once the guests are gone and all the dust has settled, it’s time to survey the damage. It pays to act quickly, even with messes that have been there for a while. Another rule of thumb: Always blot stains on carpets, napkins, clothing, and the like, because scrubbing can damage their surfaces. Below are specific treatments for seven common problems. Whatever the recommended cleaning solution, try it first on an inconspicuous spot, and follow any care-label instructions that apply.

Headache: Wine and soda on fabrics or carpet
Cure: For white wines and clear sodas, launder washable items as soon as possible. Blot carpet with water, apply our homemade detergent solution (1 teaspoon of a mild clear or  white dishwashing liquid without bleach in 1 cup of warm water), and blot again with water. For red wine, follow the same instructions and then dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. For colas on carpet or fabrics, blot with our detergent solution and, if needed, then try our vinegar solution (⅓ cup of white vinegar with ⅔ cup of water). Blot with warm water, and if a trace remains, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide.

Headache: Christmas tree sap on carpet or upholstery
Cure: Whether your tree is a pine, fir, or spruce, the sticky sap is basically the same, according to a tree expert at Cornell University. Blot sap with isopropyl rubbing alcohol to dissolve it and then use our detergent solution. Blot carpet or upholstery with the solution, then blot with clean water. Dry with a white cloth.

Headache: Chocolate on carpet or fabrics
Cure:  Scrape off excess. blot carpet with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, try the vinegar solution. Dry with a white cloth. For washable items, use your washer’s soak cycle and one of our top-rated detergents that’s tough on chocolate, such as Wisk Deep Clean, then wash.

Headache: Cranberry sauce on fabrics or carpet
Cure: Scrape away excess. Pretreat washable tablecloths and other fabrics with Resolve stain remover, launder, and line dry. If the stain persists, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide and line dry. For carpet and upholstery, blot with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, use 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. Repeat with clean white cloths until none of the stain transfers to the cloth. Then blot with water to remove cleaning solution. Dry with a white cloth weighted down with a stack of books.

Headache: Gravy on table linens
Cure: Scrape off excess with a spoon. Pretreat with a Fels-Naptha paste or Resolve stain remover and wash. Do not put items in the dryer until the stain is gone or it will be even harder to remove it.

Headache: Lipstick on cloth napkins
Cure: Blot with acetone-based nail polish remover. If the stain remains, apply our homemade detergent solution, then rinse.

Headache: Candle wax on tablecloths
Cure: Pour boiling water through the washable fabric from a height of  12 inches (the height increases the velocity of the water, helping separate the wax from the fibers). For fabric that can’t be washed, sandwich it between paper towels and apply a warm iron; repeat with a clean towel until the wax is lifted.

2014 Holiday Guide

For more tips as well as dozens of gift guides see our Holiday Gift Guide. You'll also find the results of Consumer Reports tests of hundred of holiday items.

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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