FOR most of us, the holiday season is a time of lists. There are wish lists, shopping lists, naughty and nice lists. But way down on the litany of to-do is one particular item that many find as offputting as coal in a Christmas stocking: clean the house.
After all, this is the time of year when you open your home to all manner of friends and family, who come to town to celebrate and, surely, to evaluate your housekeeping.
It’s not an uncommon concern. We all have visions of holiday perfection for the house, but beyond the garlands and nutcrackers — and a reasonably upright tree — most of us fail in our pursuit of perfection.
Yet for a select breed of the hyper-tidy, this is a time to shine. Call them extreme cleaners (nice) or neat freaks (naughty), but these super-sanitary few are the keepers of the secrets to making a house as clean and welcoming as a Charlie Brown special.
Sabrina Cusin, who runs a high-end cleaning service called (no kidding) New York’s Little Elves, is currently dealing with the annual flood of holiday deep-cleaning jobs. And with the neurotic customer demands that inevitably come with it.
“We have people who say, ‘I only want you to bring new mops, sponges, brooms and unopened fluids,’ ” she said. “What can I say? Some people never wear underpants twice. One woman insisted on new vacuums. I drew the line. So she went out and bought two Mieles.”
That doesn’t sound so unreasonable to Nancy Bock. Ms. Bock, a spokeswoman for the American Cleaning Institute, said there was nothing outrageous about insisting on virgin machines and supplies. Not if it offers “the certainty that the product is the one that was originally poured into that bottle and that nobody else’s sponge has touched the lip.”
After all, she added, “What’s extreme?”
For some, the need to keep things just so isn’t confined to the holidays. Having invested in the services of a well-known interior decorator, they feel a responsibility to maintain the look.
So designers like Steven Gambrel furnish certain clients with what amounts to an operating manual for the décor, something known in the trade as a maid’s book: a collection of photographs documenting the precise arrangement of pillows, tableware, curtains and even the contents of the hall closet (no puffy coats, no trailing scarves).
No detail is left out. One photo, for example, shows the exact amount of sheet that should be folded back over the blanket — to the nearest inch — when making a bed.
“There’s a frustration when the decorator leaves that the place is never going to look as good as when he styled it,” Mr. Gambrel said. “The book is a document that allows for no misinterpretation.”
OTHER SACRED TEXTS
When it comes to housekeeping, there are a number of reliable manuals. Martha Stewart’s “Homekeeping Handbook” is, of course, required reading for the obsessive-compulsive domestic diva.
Another standard text is Cheryl Mendelson’s “Home Comforts,” an 884-page tome with chapters like “Peaceful Coexistence With Microbes” and a somewhat sexy-sounding section, “The Cave of Nakedness,” having to do with bedrooms. (The title is about as racy as the chapter gets.)
A casual reader might also pick up “Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Home,” which offers simple, practical advice. (“Got toothpaste dripping down the side of your sink? Dab it up with a cloth and rub it on your sink and shower faucets,” Mrs. Meyer advises, something she promises will actually brighten them up. Just like your teeth.)
All of these books, however, pale in comparison with the recently published “National Trust Manual of Housekeeping” (National Trust; $75), which tops 900 pages and weighs seven pounds. It includes tips on everything from how to align your doormat (10 feet of coconut matting is recommended to truly demuck one’s galoshes, after a good night of caroling) to the proper method of moving a dining room chair (lift from the seat rails, not the back, to avoid stressing it; at least the chair will be relaxed, even if you’re not).
In addition to offering historical context (who knew that the word housekeeping dates to 1538?) and lavish photographs of the kind of places you’ll never live in, the manual also gives detailed advice about the care and cleaning of things like archaeological collections and armor, drawn from centuries of oh-so-British care of historic homes. (There is some stuff for commoners as well.)
THE AVID AMATEURS
At the end of the day, though, who can compete with the National Trust? Or with Ms. Stewart or Ms. Mendelson, for that matter? Not that some don’t try.
Consider Pam Schneider, a learning specialist with homes in New York and London. As if holiday travel weren’t bad enough, Ms. Schneider said she was so obsessed with keeping house that she travels with cleaning products she can’t find abroad, like Swiffer dusters and Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.
“People call me the Felix Unger of the millennium,” Ms. Schneider said. “Everyone says my house is like a hospital.”
She isn’t the only one who commutes with cleaning supplies. Kathryn Ireland, a Los Angeles-based decorator, said she brings stacks of brown paper bags from her local Trader Joe’s to her house in France.
Why? To remove wax from tablecloths, of course. (Running a hot iron over a bag laid on top of the tablecloth draws the wax out.) For while the French believe in long, candlelight dinners, they “don’t believe in brown paper bags,” Ms. Ireland said, and she’d just as soon avoid long hours spent hunting for them in France.
For people like Ms. Ireland and Ms. Schneider, cleaning isn’t a chore; they actually enjoy it. Carolyn Forte, a director of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, feels the same way. In fact, Ms. Forte chooses to spend her vacation days washing the windows of her split-level house in Livingston, N.J., something that has apparently made an impression on the neighbors.
“I have a neighbor who won’t buy an appliance or cleaning product without asking me,” she said.
When it comes to cleaning, attention to detail is all-important, Ms. Forte noted. Most people miss a number of spots, she said, including “telephone buttons, vacuum brushes, remote controls, undersides of rugs, toothbrush holders.” Especially when they are rushing to get ready for the holidays.
For last-minute cleaning, there are a few tools she recommends, including Scotch-Brite toilet scrubbers. “The cleaner is already in the sponge, which is shaped to get under the rim,” she said. “When you’re done, you eject it from the wand directly into the trash.”
But Sally Carle, who once worked as a designer for Pierre Cardin in Paris and now lives in Maryland, does Ms. Forte one better. Ms. Carle, in her mid-50s, removes her toilet seats to clean behind the screws. She also uses Clorox as a verb, as in “I just Cloroxed the kitchen sink.”
And her preferred tool for detailing, she said, is a toothbrush.
Of course, she diligently sterilizes and labels it carefully, she added, for obvious reasons. “It’s marked ‘loo,’ ” she said.
Good to know.
Getting Ready for the Inspection
LIKE visions of sugar plums dancing in children’s heads, the picture-perfect holiday home is probably also a dream. Still, there are a number of tips — from experts both foreign and domestic — to help one prepare the manger for company, and care for furnishings after they go. It all begins at the front door.
“Focus on what they’ll see first” is the advice of Thelma A. Meyer, a k a Mrs. Meyer of Clean Day fame, who says that a first impression can overcome whatever dirt might rear its head after dessert. In “Mrs. Meyer’s Clean House,” she recommends a solid scrub of your entry, a good shake of the doormat and a full-scale assault on the floors, sofa and chair legs, where “dust tends to gather.”
People tend to congregate in the kitchen, where the food and alcohol is, so cleaning gurus also suggest concentrating efforts there. On her Web site, Martha Stewart offers a seven-point plan, including dusting light fixtures, flushing the drain with boiling water and wiping, wiping and more wiping.
Then, of course, there is the commode, the longtime cleaning foe of bachelors. Cheryl Mendelson, the author of “Home Comfort,” depicts the bathroom as a war zone, complete with “high populations of pathogens,” stained tile and the dreaded soap scum. To conquer the latter, she suggests using undiluted liquid detergent, then water, scouring powder and a stiff brush, and finally polishing with a towel. “The results,” she writes, “will amaze you.”
Nothing can ruin a good time like a terrible smell. Elimination of nasty odors is the objective of all manner of folk remedy — orange peels, lemon juice, incense, open windows — but many swear by a good old blast of vinegar. The Laundress, a maker of specialty detergents, sells scented vinegar that can be used to create a “vinegar bomb,” which may not only vanquish bad smells but create a subconscious desire for a nice salad.
Which brings us to another time-honored holiday tradition: deception. (See Claus, Santa.) Mrs. Meyer suggests brewing coffee to camouflage smells, not to mention waking up sleepy relatives. She also suggests low light to minimize whatever blemishes might remain when guests arrive.
Finally, there is the task of cleanup. “The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping” has miles of how-to advice on caring for the important serving dishes and tableware in your manor, including your silver, which should always be stored in an antitarnish bag; delicate ceramics, which should never be held by the handle, a weak spot; and china, which should be washed with only mild detergent. The manual has plenty of other tips, all of which can be enjoyed — fireside, with a small brandy — during the period that many holiday makers enjoy most: after everyone’s gone home.