Saying Goodbye to the Holidays

While we’re still technically in the Christmas season (the Christmastide or “12 Days of Christmas” lasts until Epiphany on January 6), many people will choose this weekend to take down and store their Christmas décor.No matter when you choose to pack up everything Christmas, keep these tips in mind:

Document your décor. When I get a particular room or an arrangement just right, I take a photo of it so that the next year, I can remember what I did and either re-create it or improve on it.

Revisit the past. Before you take one ornament off the tree or remove one light from the roofline, take some time to go through what you didn’t put up this year. Why didn’t you use those items? Are they broken? Worn out? Has your taste changed? Did you inherit it from a relative, and it’s just not “you”? Do see yourself ever using a particular item? Perhaps it is time to donate those items to charity or sell them on eBay and bless someone else’s home next year. Give yourself permission to let it go.This step is particularly important if you purchased new Christmas items this year. OIf your storage is already maxed out and you need to make room to store the new decorations, use the “one in, one out” rule: for every new item you bring in, one has to go out.

Evaluate your storage options. If your holiday decorations are stored in cardboard boxes, consider gradually replacing them with clear plastic bins as your budget allows. Most stores will put them on sale this time of year, so watch the Sunday paper for good deals. The bins are easy to carry, see-through and last much longer than cardboard, which can harbor little creepy-crawlies. There are bins with little compartments for ornaments, and durable nylon bags for wreaths and even trees; find out what works best for your situation.When evaluating your storage, also consider where the container will go. For example, are the shelves in the garage or storage room deep enough and tall enough to hold the bins? Can wreath bags be hung on an empty wall in the garage?

Collect and sort. One of the guiding principles of organization is keeping like things together. With this in mind, collect all the decorative items you placed around your house and corral them in one location such as the dining room table. Natural groupings should emerge. For example, put all the kitchen items in one corner, keep all the nutcrackers together, etc. – whatever makes sense for you and your belongings. Remember those photos you took of the great vignette you created? Pack those items together and a copy of the photo right in the bin.For the ornaments, remove them from the tree and pack directly into bins or boxes. Remember to collect all the ornament hooks into a zipper bag and pack with the ornaments. If the ornaments fall into natural categories, such as a specific colors or themes, consider packing them together. Next year, you may want to do “themed trees” for different rooms in your home.

Pack and track. Pack away items in appropriate containers and store them in the appropriate locations. For example, you may not want to keep Grandma’s porcelain angel in a garage or attic that has extreme temperature swings. Try to find a place in an interior closet for such delicate items.Remember to wash any holiday linens and towels before storing them. Space-saving, airtight plastic bags (such as Space Bags) are perfect for condensing these items for storage.While you’re packing, make an index card for each bin or box and detail the contents; mark the box or bin with a corresponding letter or number. Taking the time to organize the “tear down” will make decorating the house that much easier next year. Keep the index cards in a desk drawer or in a section of your recipe file box – wherever it makes sense for you.

Return to your regularly scheduled décor … or not. Your walls, tables, front door and vanities may look a little bare once all the Christmas décor is taken away. It’s time to convert back to your everyday look. However, this is the perfect time to refresh any tired or tattered art and accessories. Look at your towels, rugs, knick knacks and other accessories with a fresh eye. Is it time for an update? Even if you don’t buy anything new, you need not return the same accessories to the same locations. Mix it up! Rotating items you already have is an easy and economical way to make a room look fresh.

Happy packing!

Read More

Scents of the Season

More than any other holiday, Christmas seems to come with its own soundtrack and its own “scent” track. Whether it’s catching a whiff of cookies baking in the oven or a fresh Christmas tree, certain smells scream “Merry Christmas!”

Ancient spices, herbs and evergreens have all played a part in the development of our modern Christmas scent track. Here’s a look at the scents of the season and a few easy ways to incorporate them into your home this year.

Spices were first used by humans as many as 50,000 years ago. The first spice trade was developed in the Middle East around 2000 BC with pepper and cinnamon. Spices were terribly expensive in the Middle Ages, and they were used sparingly as medicines and incense, for perfuming the wealthy and in religious rituals. The quest for exotic spices in the 15th century shaped the exploration of the world and transformed world history. Interestingly, some of the earliest recorded spices are now synonymous with Christmas.

Allspice – This is the dried berry of the evergreen pimiento tree, native to South America and the West Indies. It earned its name because it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

Cardamom – If you’ve never smelled cardamom pods, you are missing out. Cardamom is not very well known to most home cooks, but if you’ve ever had a Danish pastry, you’ve tasted cardamom. A native to India, these small green pods deliver a pungent aroma and a sweet-spicy taste.

Cinnamon – Cinnamon is the inner bark of an evergreen tropical tree, and was once used to perfume wealthy Romans. The dark, reddish brown sticks and powder that we purchase are technically “cassia” cinnamon. This unique spice is added to both sweet and savory dishes.

Clove – Cloves are the dried, unopened flower bud of a tropical evergreen tree. Native to Indonesia, cloves made their way to the Middle East early on; a clove was found burned into the floor of a kitchen dating back to 1700 BC in the region now known as Syria. Cloves are considered one of the most important spices in the world. It’s name is derived from the Latin word for nail.

Nutmeg – This spice was on Columbus’s list when he set sail to find the East Indies. Whole nutmeg is the seed of the fruit of the nutmeg tree, a tropical evergreen (seeing a pattern with evergreens?). Nutmeg was extremely popular throughout much of the world from the 15th to 19th centuries. Today it is used in a variety of baked goods and cream sauces.

Bring it home: A great way to fill your home with these Christmas-y aromas (without the expense of scented candles) is to simmer a few whole allspice, a few cloves, a pod or two of cardamom and a cinnamon stick in a small pan of water on the stovetop. Alternatively, simmer a bag of mulling spices for a quick boost of fragrance.

Pine – It’s now the quintessential scent of the season, but evergreen trees and shrubs were part of winter celebrations centuries before the Christmas tree came into vogue. Ancient people revered evergreens because they remained green and alive during the dead months of winter. More than 100 varieties of pine trees are indigenous to the northern hemisphere, with about 35 varieties in North America alone.

Bay – What we now use as a dried herb is actually the evergreen laurel shrub. Ancient Romans made fresh laurel crowns to give and wear during their New Year’s celebrations.

Bayberry – One of the most popular scents for Christmas candles, the bayberry is actually an evergreen herb that can grow into a large shrub or small tree. The plant yields waxy, bluish berries that are used to make the candles. It’s also know as a “wax myrtle.”

Snowscape
Bring it home:

Make fresh boughs, wreaths or candle rings from fresh cuttings of pine and other evergreens. Trim the cuttings, layer them, and tightly wrap with 24-gauge floral wire around stem ends to create bundles of holiday fragrance. (Add an ornament and/or ribbon for extra flair.) Use these little boughs all over the house:
• Tuck into artificial garlands; tie on with the ends of the wire or wrap a piece of garland around the bough. Accent with groups of glass ball ornaments wired together.
• Tie on to lamp bases with ribbon.
• Tie on to the finials of curtain rods.
• Tuck into artificial trees.

Even without the benefits of floral wire, you can still accent your home with fresh cuttings:
• Tuck fresh pine cuttings or rosemary springs in fresh floral arrangements. White roses and pine look stunning!
• Arrange a mix of cuttings in vases.
• Add cuttings to shelves in curios and china cabinets for a bit of green.
• Create a candlescape with cuttings: Put a good layer of kosher salt “snow” in a clear, cylindrical container and add cuttings and a few cranberries or mini ornaments; place a clear votive cup in the center.In just a few minutes you can add last-minute touches of holiday greens and fragrance all around your home.

Read More

How to Remove Spilled Candle Wax

 

Candlelight has been illuminating our nights for more than 5,000 years. While no longer the main source of light in our homes, candlelight now brings warmth, fragrance, serenity and celebration into our lives.

Candlelight is synonymous with celebrations of all types: birthdays, special dinners and of course, the holidays. According to the National Candle Association, more than 35 percent of our annual $2 billion in candle purchases are made during the holiday season, both for giving as gifts and using at home.

Whether part of a festive centerpiece or creating multiple points of light in a seasonal vignette, chances are candles will leave behind unwelcome presents at some point this season. I call them waxidents: wax accidents, wax drippings that seem to be inevitable. There are a few ways to prevent waxidents, and luckily, easy ways to deal with them when they do happen.

Prevention

Perhaps the best way to prevent waxidents is to extinguish every candle with a candle snuffer, rather than blowing out the flame. Blowing onto the candle can literally spray little specks of wax everywhere. Also resist the urge to move a burning or recently extinguished candle; no matter how careful you are, it is easy to tip the candle and spill wax onto the tabletop or floor. Even taper candles marked “dripless” can drip. Use a bobeche – a small, thin glass plate with a hole in the middle (like a flat glass donut) to catch the drippings.

Always burn candles in a vessel that was specifically designed for that purpose. Everyday glassware may not withstand the high temperatures and temperature fluctuations and burst, sending wax oozing everywhere.

A previous post suggested using unscented candles on the dining table, so as not to interfere with the taste and scent of the holiday meal. Another reason to use unscented candles is that they are typically white or ivory; deep, intensely colored candles means that the wax may leave a stain the tablecloth. The wax residue is easy to remove (see below); the stain from colored wax may linger.

Finally, to prevent wax from sticking to the bottom of a votive holder, place a few drops of water in the bottom of the holder just before placing the candle. Be sure to burn the candle soon after adding the water, otherwise over time the wick could absorb the water and fail to burn properly.

Removal

Despite taking proper precautions, a waxident may happen. Follow these steps to remove the wax and the residue it leaves behind.

Table linens: After a wax has dried, apply an ice cube or an ice pack to the wax. This makes the wax brittle; then, using a plastic credit card or dull knife, gently scrape off what you can. If any residue remains, place a brown paper bag under the wax, and another bag on top and iron the area with an iron set on medium. The heat melts the wax into the paper bag. Repeat with clean bags until the residue is completely removed. If the candle was colored and the wax left a stain, treat the stain with a standard stain remover and wash the cloth immediately if it’s washable, or take it to the dry cleaner as soon as possible.

Wooden furniture: Apply an ice cube or ice pack to the wax drippings and gently scrape off the drippings with a plastic credit card or dull knife. Remove any remaining residue with a soft cloth and cream furniture wax.

Rugs and upholstered furniture: Again, freeze the wax with an ice cube or an ice pack, then shatter the wax with a blunt instrument. Use a vacuum to pick up the pieces of frozen wax.

Glass candle holders: If wax has stuck to the candle holder, simply place the candle holder in the freezer for a few hours to freeze the wax. Then pry the wax loose with a dull, plastic knife. Remove any remaining residue with hot, soapy water.

Fire Safety

As beautiful as the glow of flickering candles makes our homes, the incidence of house fires increases four times during the holiday season. The National Candle Association offers the following tips to keep homes safer:

  • Always keep a burning candle within your sight. Never leave a burning candle unattended.
  • Never burn a candle on or near anything that can catch fire. Be especially careful with flammable decorations or placing candles too close to Christmas greenery or Christmas trees.
  • Always use a candleholder specifically designed for candle use. The holder should be heat resistant, sturdy and big enough to collect dripping wax.
  • Never place pillars or any candles directly on furniture, whether glass or wood, or directly on greenery.
  • Keep candles out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Trim candlewicks to ¼ inch before lighting or re-lighting, and keep the wax-pool free of wick trimmings, dust, matches and debris at all times. Too-long wicks can cause uneven burning, smoking and dripping.

For more information on candle history, use and safety, go to www.candles.org.

Read More

Get Cooking

Cooking at home is becoming fashionable, whether it’s thanks to popular movies like “Julie & Julia” and countless television cooking shows, or more practical considerations like the economy, sustainability and health.

A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Whole Foods Market, Inc. showed that the majority of adults (68 percent) say the economy has affected their cooking and eating habits, with about half (51 percent) saying they eat dinner at home more often. According to the survey, a whopping 79 percent of adults say they cook.

But if our attitudes towards cooking at home are changing, is our definition of “cooking” changing as well? What the Whole Foods survey didn’t reveal is how much cooking and eating at home involves pre-packaged convenience foods and how much is actually from scratch.

I will most certainly take a hand from the grocery store some weeknights. But making meals from scratch with fresh, whole ingredients is a wonderful experience and an opportunity to engage friends and family in a new way. For example, the first time my nephew visited my home, I suggested that we have pizza for dinner. He was 6 at the time, so of course he agreed. Was he ever surprised when I took an apron out of the pantry and handed it to him! We made the dough from scratch, and I taught him how to measure the flour, knead the dough, patiently wait for it to rise and then roll it out. We had a great time, and some tasty pizza, too!

If you’ve never quite gotten the hang of “real” cooking (i.e. not microwaving a frozen dinner), why not take a class at a local cooking school? Unless you really did graduate from culinary school, most home cooks can learn something new or perfect a technique at a cooking class. (I recently improved on my knife skills in one class and learned the secret to slow cooking onions for French onion soup in another.) Check your local yellow pages for cooking schools, or look for adult enrichment courses at the local community college or university. You may even find professional chefs who will come to your home and teach you and your friends how to prepare a specific meal or refine a certain technique. As a bonus, most classes end with eating what you prepared in class!

Sign up with a friend or meet new friends in class. Either way, challenge yourself this season to get more out of yourself and your kitchen. In the coming days, Holiday Hints will bring you five easy new recipes to flex your cooking muscles, so stay tuned!

Read More

Planning Day 4: Where

We’re still in planning mode for Thanksgiving, and today’s hint applies equally to the December holidays. The “where” in holiday planning is all about storage, and storage usually includes organization.Getting organized was one of the top five New Year’s resolutions in 2009.

According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) in November 2008, 65 percent of respondents described their home as at least moderately disorganized, and 96 percent indicated that they could save time every day by becoming more organized. Can you relate?

For Thanksgiving, here are a few “where” questions to keep in mind:

• Where are the china, flatware, glassware, serving pieces, table linens and accessories you will use this year? Are they in a box in the garage; on a shelf in the closet? Dig them out before Thanksgiving morning.
• Where are the utensils and cookware you need to prepare your feast?
• Where can you store make-ahead dishes; does the freezer need to be cleaned out over the next couple of weeks?
• Where will out of town guests stay? If they’re staying at your home, how’s the guest room looking? Does it need a tune up?
• Where will you keep guests’ coats during your Thanksgiving celebration? Is there sufficient room in the coat closet; sufficient hangers?

I am a home organization convert; a few years ago I invested in the services of a professional organizer. At first, I thought it would be for one room – the guest room where I also store all of my seasonal home accessories. But after experiencing the immediate gratification of an organized room, I decided to use the professional organizer to help in the craft area, home office, kitchen/pantry and the garage. It took nearly two years, but it was worth it. The systems are still in place, and it’s amazing to be able to find just what I need when I need it. (And if you’re thinking, “I should be able to do it myself,” get over it! Do not be afraid to ask for professional, objective assistance.)For organization tips, and to find a professional organizer in your area, go to www.napo.net/get_organized. The site also offers questions to ask a professional organizer before hiring him or her.

One last tip: my favorite organizing tool is a two-tiered lazy Susan spice rack that fits just right in the cabinet. It makes finding just the right seasoning a snap! And anything that makes holiday cooking a little easier is a great find. (I found mine at a major bed and bath retailer.)

Read More

Happy Halloween!

Tips for storing Halloween candy

If you’ve been following Holiday Hints since Oct. 1, you should have a pretty good handle on today’s festivities. If not, there are still a few hours left to wrap up any last minute details.

If you have leftover candy, either from handing out or a child’s haul, here are some tips for storing candy from the National Confectioners’ Association:

Chocolate. Dark chocolate can be kept for one to two years if wrapped in foil and stored in a cool, dark and dry place. Milk and white chocolate have a more limited storage time-no more than eight to 10 months.

Hard candy (lollipops, hard mints, butterscotches). Hard candies can last up to a year when stored at room temperature in a cool, dry location.

Soft candies (gum drops, jellied candies). If the packaging has been opened, soft candies should be covered away from heat and light at room temperature. Stored in this manner, the candy should last six to nine months. If the packaging has not been opened, soft sweets will last approximately 12 months.

Candy corn. If opened, candy corn should be stored under the same conditions as soft candies and will last approximately three to six months. Unopened, packages will last about nine months.If chocolate is stored in too warm a location, it will develop “bloom” –grayish-white streaks that are formed by the cocoa butter forming crystals on the chocolate surface. This is normal, and does not affect the quality or taste of the chocolate; it just may not look as appetizing.

Sadly, when the evening is over, so is Halloween. Tomorrow is an ideal time to pack away all the Halloween decorations. To get jump on it, while you’re waiting for trick-or-treaters tonight start collecting Halloween items from around the house and place them in a central location, such as a countertop, the top of the washer or a table.

Holiday Hints will be back tomorrow with a few tips on storing your Halloween regalia, and we’ll get a head start on Thanksgiving plans.

Read More