If you love to give holiday parties but dread the housecleaning that goes with them, a maid service could be the next best thing to having your own elves.

The franchised maid services and many independent domestic employment agencies have maids available on a one-time basis. They can help get your house ready for the festivities or clean up the aftermath.Some will even do those truly loathsome chores, such as polishing the silver or picking the pine needles out of the carpet.

If you go through an independent agency, expect to pay about $10 to $15 an hour with a minimum of three to five hours, depending on the agency. Or, if time is at a premium, you can hire a team of cleaning commandos to swoop in and blitz your house clean in a hurry.

Most of the nationally franchised home cleaning services specialize in two-, three- or four-person teams that divide up the work to get the job done quickly.

The Maids International, Merry Maids, Mini-Maid Services and Pop-Ins Maid Service are some of the biggest franchise chains.

The Maids, with 235 franchises, uses four-person teams exclusively.

"They spend on average of 50 to 60 minutes in the house. One concentrates on dusting, one does the vacuuming, another cleans the bathroom," said Cindy Wilson, publicist for the company.

Merry Maids, with more than 400 franchises, uses two-person teams that divide the chore list into "wet" and "dry" tasks, said company spokesman Jim Fowler.

The fees vary according to the size of the home and the amount of work to be done, but most of the franchises quote averages in the $50 to $60 range for a top-to-bottom cleaning.

The rivalry between these companies is intense, so the prices don't vary much from one to another.

You may be able to find holiday help for even less by checking community bulletin boards or the want ads. But if your house is full of crystal heirlooms, you'd do well to make sure your swabbies are licensed, bonded and insured.