In 2007, Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith, then physicists at the University of California, San Diego, dropped a bit of string into a cubic box, jostled it about, took the string out and documented its state, knotted or . . . not.
Then they did it again. Then they used a longer string. Then they did it another 3,400 times.
Their experiment and resulting study, Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string, proves what every agitated holiday decorator already knows: untangling the lights is as much a tradition as the star atop the tree and, no matter how well coiled, they’ll be a twisted, taunting mess again in 11 months. Order tends toward disorder.
What if there was a better way? Cut down on that seasonal stress with these holiday hacks — no physics degree required.
Open a Bottle of Wine — Without a Corkscrew
What if you, a wholly unprepared holiday drinker, has forgotten a corkscrew, after foolishly opting for a sip so expensive the bottle eschews the screw-top? Never fear: there are plenty of ways to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew . . . none of them, admittedly, as easy as remembering to buy a corkscrew. Please be careful with any of these methods.
One of the safest, non-corkscrew methods to opening a bottle of wine makes use of a simple screw and hammer. Simply drive a long-ish screw into the cork, leaving about one inch showing; then lock the claw end under the screw and pull. This one takes some strength and resilience, but you’ll have earned the drink.
Along the same lines, it’s possible to twist the cork out with keys, a serrated knife, or other such item; plunge it into the cork at a 45-degree angle, then move the top of the item in a circle, twisting it out slowly.
Safe but lacking finesse, it’s possible to push the cork into the bottle with the handle of a wooden spoon or similar sturdy, blunt object — just don’t think you’re ever getting that cork back out.
One of the more out-there options requires some heat; a blowtorch is best, but even the humble disposable lighter will work in a pinch. Apply heat to the neck of the bottle, right underneath the cork; this causes the air in the bottle to expand, slowly pushing that stubborn stopper up and out of the bottle. Be sure to remove the foil wrap first!
If you’ve come up short on a corkscrew, regular screw, nail, hammer, wooden spoon, knife, keys, blowtorch, and lighter, there’s still hope; ever heard of a “brogan adjustment”? Wrap a towel around the base of the bottle, place it upside down between your legs, and whack that bottle until the cork starts to push out — not too far, though; if the cork pops out, you’ve got a mess on your hands.
Depending on the varietal — and how warm the bottle is after you opened it with a blowtorch — you may need your wine chilled, fast!
Chill a Bottle of Wine Quickly
To chill wine quickly, nothing beats tried-and-true thermodynamics. Grab a bucket — preferably insulated, and metal if you’ve got it — and load it with ice, water, and lots of salt. Saltwater, thanks to some high-school science you may still remember (though I do not), has a lower freezing point than fresh, so the temperature of the ice bath can get even colder than a freezing 32 degrees. Set your bottle in the bucket and, within about 15 minutes, it should be chilled enough to enjoy. Thanks, science! You can also wrap the bottle in a damp, not wet, towel, and place it in the freezer. The thin towel will freeze quickly and insulate the bottle, chilling it in half the time.
If you just need a glass (or three) chilled on the double, you can purchase granite chilling stones or metal ice cubes, which work like the real thing minus all the melting. Even better, pop a few frozen grapes in your glass for a little festivity with your functionality.
Keep a Christmas Tree Green
To keep your holiday tree fresh and green through the New Year, first ask the seller to trim a half inch from the trunk. Let the branches fall overnight, then trim another half inch from the bottom of the trunk before placing it in a tree stand.
Get it into a stand and watered as soon as possible and, over the next few weeks, make sure the reservoir stays full — trees can be surprisingly thirsty!
At night or when you’re not home, make sure to turn off the lights, and be sure the tree is away from heat sources like fireplaces, space heaters, vents, and direct sunlight. Not only will this keep your tree fresh, but it will limit the risk of a disastrous holiday fire.
There are plenty of additives for sale, and just as many anecdotal answers — corn syrup, aspirin, sugar — that purport to prolong the life of your tree, but the cold, hard science says none of these beat clean, plentiful water.
Safely Store Ornaments
Nary a Christmas comes and goes without the inevitable broken bulbs or, worse, shattered ornaments. Those shiny globes are fragile, and their shape makes safe storage a challenge. This year, keep your floor free from those sneaky shards of seasonal glass by storing Christmas or other holiday ornaments snug and safe.
All you’ll need is a sheet of corrugated cardboard — plentiful in scrap during gift-giving season — cut to the same length and width of a large, plastic storage bin. Grab a stack of red, disposable Solo cups — left over from seasonal drinking games, perhaps — and glue them upright on the cardboard in rows. When it’s time to pack in the decorations, wrap delicate ornaments in tissue or newspaper, place them in the cups, and stack in layers. Voila! You can also store smaller, miniature ornaments in ever-handy empty egg cartons.
Hassle-free Christmas Lights
We’ve come full circle, back to the alpha and omega of holiday hardships: untangling, hanging and, later, storing Christmas lights.
No matter how tempted, or frustrated, you might be, don’t try to untangle the lights from the center of the knot — there’s almost no chance of that working. Instead, start with one end and stick with it; as long as the knot-free section is getting longer, you’re on the right track.
Once those lights are straightened, it’s time to deck those halls. For outdoor lights, forego hangers and hammers and take a tip from the pros: a cordless hot-glue gun takes the difficulty out of decorating. Just squirt a line of hot glue along the side of the base of the light — keeping the bulbs clean — and press in place on brick, stone, or stucco. For painted surfaces, it’s best to stick to the old standards. Consider waiting until the light string is affixed before putting in the bulbs; this keeps them clean and makes the process even easier.
Once the holidays have come and gone, you can keep those lights twinkling and tangle-free with — what else? — some scrap cardboard. Like you did for your ornament boxes, cut a few sheets to the size of a storage container. Cut a notch on one side, tuck one end into the notch, then wrap the lights around the cardboard, cutting a second notch where the strand ends. You can apply this same principle to a paper-towel tube (with a notch cut in either end), a Pringles can (same idea), or a clothes hanger (using the strap hooks), or upend a chair or stool and wrap the lights in a figure-eight around two of the legs, using the extra length to wrap around the bundle. Pack them in bubble wrap or tissue paper, then rest easy knowing this year is the last you ever have to untangle strands of lights.
Written by Zak Hansen • Photography by Zak Hansen, Olivia Belcher, and Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2020