It's that time of year again. Time to string up the lights, put that giant inflatable Santa Claus in its appointed spot on the lawn and drag those boxes out of the attic, garage, or wherever it is they've been stowed for almost a year. But before you start decorating, there are a few things to consider to make your holidays not only happy but safe as well.
When it comes to choosing a tree, there are two options: real or artificial. Most artificial trees are fire-resistant, so if that's the route you choose, look for one that states that. If you opt for a real tree, look for one that's been cut recently, since a fresh tree is less of a fire hazard than a dry one. How do you know if a tree is fresh? Look at three things: color, the cut and the needles. A fresh tree is green and its cut is sticky with resin. As for needles, they shouldn't break when you bend them; they're hard to pull from the branches and won't fall off when the trunk is bounced on the ground. The National Christmas Tree Association offers a great list of selection tips, which you can read here.
When you put up the tree, make sure it's away from fireplaces, woodstoves and heaters of any kind. Heat dries trees out, and a dry tree burns more easily. Make sure it's not blocking a doorway and place it in an area where it's unlikely to be knocked over accidentally. If necessary, you can use wire to secure it to walls or the ceiling. There are several wires that are thin, sturdy and nearly invisible.
Even if the cut is fresh, you should still cut off another inch or two and remove any branches that might prevent the tree from sitting in the base of a stand. That stand should be sturdy, hold enough water to keep the tree as fresh as possible for as long as possible, and have wide feet to prevent it from tipping over. Keep the stand full of fresh water for as long as the tree is up.
You should never burn trees, branches or other evergreens in the fireplace. Dry trees burn quickly and can flare out of control, sending sparks into the room or up the chimney, where they can cause creosote deposits to burn.
Whether you subscribe to the Clark Griswold school of decorating (i.e., cover nearly every inch of your home with lights) or prefer a more modest display, there's no denying that lights are a holiday necessity. Besides being festive, they can also be a major fire hazard.
Be sure to use only lights that carry a label indicating they've been tested and certified by UL or another independent testing agency. This is usually found on the packaging and on a tag on the cord itself. Whether they're new or old, check every set of lights for broken sockets, damaged wires or loose connections. If you see anything wrong, don't take any chances; toss that string of lights immediately.
Never plug more than three sets of lights per outlet or extension cord. Whether indoor or outdoor, make sure to turn off all lights and other electrical decorations when you go to bed or when leaving your home. For outdoor lights, make sure they're securely fastened to trees, walls, fences, or other sturdy supports to prevent damage from wind, ice, snow and other potential hazards.
This time of year, paper is seemingly everywhere, whether it's used as decoration or for wrapping presents. So it's important to make sure all that paper doesn't go up in smoke, taking your holiday spirit - and potentially your entire home - with it.
If you're using paper decorations (you'll find some great ideas here), look for materials that are labeled non-combustible or flame-resistant. Never put decorations near open flames or electrical connections. As for wrapping paper, once presents have been opened, immediately take the paper away from the tree - making sure to keep it away from fireplaces and heaters. As tempting as it may be, never burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. They could ignite suddenly and burn intensely, causing a flash fire, which again could ignite creosote deposits in your chimney.
Maybe it's the seeming warmth they bring to a room, or the holiday scents they emit when they're burned, but for some reason, candles are very popular in December. As nice as it is to have them around, never forget that a candle is nothing more than an open flame, and open flames should be treated with caution and respect.
Make sure all candles are placed securely in a non-flammable holder and place them somewhere they can't get knocked over. Always keep lit candles away from trees, other decorations, wrapping paper and any other flammable materials.
This year (and every year), make safety your first priority. Otherwise a fire or other catastrophe could play the Grinch and spoil your holidays - or worse.