Holiday Celebrations: A Time for Joy - and Safety Too

Burn Injury
Holiday Fire Safety

By Lynn Shapiro, Staff Writer

When Les Gminski began his 20-plus year career in retail home improvement management at Hechinger Company in Metropolitan Washington, D.C., he realized that the Christmas holiday cash cow could become a personal injury and product liability nightmare when irresponsible customers fail to take appropriate precautions against electrical fires and slip-and-fall accidents.

Guests Parking Area Safety

“The first demonstration of safety occurs when guests pull up to your house,” Gminski said in an interview with

“Make sure the parking area near your home is clear of ice and snow and treated with sand and ice melt.

Sidewalks and steps must also be treated, or homeowners could have a slip and fall case from an erstwhile jovial guest or neighbor on their hands.

“Your friends are going to want food, some are going to want booze. If your sidewalk or driveway is unsafe when guests leave your holiday party, or if they’re drunk, who’s liable?

“The homeowners,” Gminski stated.

Home Fires Climb in December

U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 200 home fires annually started by Christmas trees in 2011-2015, according to the The National Fire Protection Association.


More than 40 percent of fires happen in December, compared to about half that number of fires occurring in the nine-month period from February through November.

However, a whopping 37 percent of fires occur in January, accounting for what Gminski calls the “spillover from New Year’s parties.”

Advice for Tree-Owners

“Live-cut trees must be kept watered and unobtrusively supported by a nearby wall or other surface using clear monofilament line attached with eye hooks or nails to reduce the chance of the tree toppling over,” Gminski says.

“If possible, fasten the tree stand to the floor, or fasten the stand to a 2 foot by 2 foot piece of plywood to reduce the chance of the tree tipping over.

“Then, cover the plywood base with a festive tree skirt,” Gminski stylishly advises.

Highly Flammable Trees

Live-cut tree branches and needles are highly flammable.

With live-cut trees, it’s the trees themselves that burst into flames

With artificial trees, when the tree topples over, it’s mainly the tree lights that cause carpet, fabric and upholstery to smolder.

“An artificial tree trunk is made of tubular steel, the branches are made of wire covered in synthetic Christmas needles, which are treated with a fire-retardant.

“However, if an unattended pet or child knocks the tree over, the live trees will burn and the artificial trees will also cause fires from bulbs and wiring coming in contact with carpeting, upholstery and draperies.

“And now for the ultimate in common sense reminder: If a wood-burning fireplace is anywhere near a Christmas tree, do not even think about lighting your fireplace during the holidays,” Gminski warns.

L.E.D. and Incandescent Lights

“Wherever you have electricity and a potentially flammable decorated Christmas tree, the opportunity for disaster is ever- present,” Gminski says.

For example, incandescent Christmas tree lights are hot enough to ignite dry live-cut trees, carpet, or curtains, if the tree is accidentally knocked over by a guest, small child or by a pet.

And although L.E.D. light sets have rapidly replaced incandescent sets, they must be properly placed on your Christmas tree and examined each year for safety.

A benefit of L.E.D. sets is they use less energy than a traditional light and operate at a lower temperature than incandescent bulbs.

“Granted, all holiday light sets include an in-line fuse to protect from overheating, although if wiring is older and cracked, fire is a possibility,” Gminski says.

Exterior Lighting and Timers

Though in-home decorations pose the greatest threat to life and limb, safety considerations also apply to exterior holiday lighting.

“Icicle lights displayed along residential home guttering and tree shrubs may short out, causing a potential electrical safety hazard.

Pathways and display lights must be firmly anchored in the lawn and ideally controlled by a timer, to minimize overheating.

Light sets decorating shrubs and trees will benefit from a timer, as well.

Timers not only contribute to household holiday safety, they reduce utility bills, Gminski says.

He advises that homeowners follow these general rules for Christmas safety:

  • Examine all older light sets for cracks to insulation and plug ends, and make sure that all sockets have a well-fitting bulb in place.
  • Water live Christmas trees daily, so they don’t dry out. Tree needles area great source of fuel.
  • Illuminate lights only when adults are in the room.
  • Find a way to keep your pets away from the tree. If they knock it over, the tree can catch fire and your joyous dogs and cats might be injured.

Plan for a Safe Hanukkah Next Year

As for those of us who celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, be wary of candles and especially oil on the Menorah.

Be sure to place the Menorah on a non-flammable surface, such as a silver tray, just in case a candle spits a spark, or if burning oil is spilled onto a table cloth.

Gminski cited a deadly Menorah fire that took place this week in an Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn, where oil-lit Menorahs are still used.

Most Jewish people, who light Hanukkah candles these days, use matches or a lighter, and responsibly blow out the candles before turning in for the night “as visions of sugar plums” and potato latkas, “dance in their heads,” Gminski jests, borrowing a phrase from Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Carke Moore.

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