How To Choose and Set Up a Safe Christmas Tree

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Christmas tree catching fire
Santa won’t be happy this Christmas Eve. Play it safe and keep your tree safe. Image credit: NIST

Thinking about setting up this year’s huge, green tannenbaum to give your home some holiday cheer? Let’s run through these safety tips for buying a fresh Christmas tree, putting it up securely, decorating it with kids and pets in mind, and preventing an accidental fire.

Each year on average, 160 tree fires result in 14 injuries, 2 death and $10 million in direct property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Choose your tree wisely

There’s nothing quite like shopping at a Christmas tree farm or a neighborhood lot during the holidays, surrounded by greenery and the scent of a rain forest. But before strapping a lush evergreen to the top of your car, buy one that’s fresh, moist and less likely to catch fire in your home.

Inquire about freshness

Recently-cut trees tend to have more moisture. Ask the manager how long ago your chosen tree arrived on the lot. Some lots bring them in just once at the beginning of the season, while others receive fresh deliveries throughout the season.

If they offer more than one type of tree, such as firs and pines, ask which species lasts the longest in your climate.

You can check the moisture level right on the lot, without any special equipment. “Run your hand along the branches. If you end up with a handful of needles, then it’s too dry and should stay on the lot,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL. If you only have one or two needles, then you know that it’s fresher.”

In addition, the bottom should be sticky with resin and the needles shouldn’t break between your fingers, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Also look for discolored foliage, wrinkled bark, missing needles or a musty odor.

Once you’ve made your selection, “make sure that they cut an inch or two off the base” to preserve freshness, says Drengenberg. “That opens up the wood to absorb more water.”

For Allergy Sufferers

When it comes to Christmas tree-related allergies, some species can cause you more problems than others. On the one hand, junipers and cedars can pollinate in the winter. On the other hand, whites pines are less aromatic, which hopefully offers you a less sneezy holiday experience.

Artificial trees can offer an allergy-free substitute, but only if they’re not pre-coated with scents or artificial snow.

Artificial Trees

Just like “real” trees, artificial or “fake” trees are also potential fire hazards, especially the pre-lit models that come with their own electrical lighting system. Look for one that’s labeled as “fire resistant.”

Keep in mind that fire resistant isn’t the same as fireproof. “The tree can still ignite,” says Drengenberg. It’s just less likely to than a non-fire resistant model. So, UL has researched them extensively and developed new safety requirements. “Look for the UL mark on pre-lit artificial trees.” he says.

Prepare at home

Before visiting a tree lot, buy a sturdy, weighted stand. Not only can you start watering it immediately, it will prevent your holiday masterpiece from tipping over. “There aren’t a lot of injuries associated with that, but it can mess up your decorating plans,” says Drengenberg.

When deciding on the size of your tree, measure the floor space where you’ll put it up, as well as the width of your front door. Trees look smaller when sitting in a lot under the open sky. You don’t want to take it home only to find that the bottom branches reach all the way to the wall heater.

Drive safely in winter

Planning to shop at a tree farm outside of the city? Driving on country roads exposed to snow and icerequires special preparations, so take your family’s safety as seriously as you would while driving on a winter camping trip.

Put it up securely

Don’t let a tip-over or house fire sour your holiday cheer

Once a Christmas tree has been cut down, it’s not a living plant anymore, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL. Without roots and soil to moisten and stabilize it, your holiday evergreen can easily fall over, dry out or catch fire.

“On an average day during the holiday season, there are ten tree fires somewhere in the United States,” he says. “That may not seem like a lot, unless of course it’s in your house.”

Keeping it — and your family — safe and healthy is up to you.

Place it in the best spot

Not sure where to put up your big bundle of needles? This is especially difficult in a small living room or apartment.

Locate the tree at least three feet away from fireplaces, radiators, candles, lights, vents and other sources of heat. Approximately one out of every four tree fires occurs because they’re too close to each other.

Make sure it isn’t blocking a hallway, doorway or other exit route. “In the event of a tree fire, you want to get out of the house very quickly, because trees tend to burn fast,” says Drengenberg.

If you have small children or pets, position it in in a corner, then block it off with a baby gate or other barrier.

Mount it properly

“A large tree stand is the best thing you can do to prevent the tree from tipping over,” says Drengenberg. “Some people like to wire it to the wall, such as little cord at the top.”

Use a weighted stand wide enough to accommodate the trunk. Don’t whittle down the trunk to make it fit, because its outer layers absorb water better than its inner layers, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

It should also be able to hold one quart of water for every inch of the trunk’s diameter. So, if your trunk is five inches wide, you’ll need a five-quart or larger stand.

Keep it moist

“The most important safety tip is to make sure that the tree stand has water in it throughout the holiday season,” he says. “Your tree will absorb an enormous amount in the first few days that it’s in your house.”

  • How often? On the day that you put up the tree, check the water level every two hours. Thereafter, check it daily.
  • How much? If the trunk doesn’t fit all the way to the bottom of the stand, keep enough water in it to rise above the bottom of the trunk.
  • Don’t drill holes in the side of the trunk. It won’t help with water absorption.
  • If you have to delay mounting the tree in the stand for a few days, then take it outside and place it in a bucket of water.

Recycle it promptly

No matter how much the kids protest, don’t leave your tree up until after Easter. “No matter how well you keep the tree watered, on average they will last only about four weeks,” says Drengenberg. “If you put up a tree just after Thanksgiving, take it down right after Christmas.”

Four weeks is only a guideline, he adds. The time can vary based on a variety of factors, such as the room’s temperature, humidity and air flow, plus how well you keep it watered.

How to decorate it safely

Ornaments and lights can be fun, pretty — and dangerous.

Who doesn’t enjoy decorating an evergreen tree with bright lights, colorful ornaments and shiny garlands? If you’re careful, the whole family can enjoy a safe and memorable holiday.

If not, you’re literally playing with fire. Keep candles, heaters and potential fire hazards a safe distance away.

Lighting your tree safely

Still have last year’s tangle of lights tucked away in the closet? Inspect them for worn or broken wires and loose bulb connections. If you find any, don’t try to repair them. Toss the entire string and buy a new one, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

If you have the older-style incandescent lights, a good rule of thumb is not to connect more than three strings together, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at the safety science testing company UL. However, “You can string more than three in a series of the newer LED light strings,” he says.

If you have a mixture of incandescent and LED strands, don’t connect them together at all together, according to the Canada Safety Council.

In addition:

  • When you’re ready to light up the tree, make sure that the plug is firmly in the socket and don’t overload the electrical circuit.
  • Use any leftover light strings to decorate the interior of your home only. If they’re not rated for outdoor use, they might not hold up against the winter weather.
  • Before turning in for the night, turn off the lights, especially if you have pets that might decided to go tree-climbing in the wee hours of the morning.

Protect your kids

Don’t let small children or babies play with lights or decorations, according to Drengenberg. “Keep your glass ornaments high enough so that toddlers can’t reach them,” he says. “If it breaks, they have a tendency to put things in their mouth.”

The same goes for sharp, weighted or breakable decorations; anything with small, removable parts; and objects made to resemble food, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Drengenberg recommends decorating the lower branches with paper and other safer decorations, plus keeping heirloom ornaments high up with the hazardous ones.

Garlands or light strings can strangle children who play with them, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International. Keep them out of reach of small, curious hands.

Watch your pets

Some pets like to explore their home environment. “Cats sometimes like to get up in the tree,” says Drengenberg. “Dogs don’t climb trees, generally.” So, bringing in a large new addition to the living room requires a little planning.

Secure any items that your pet might chew on, such as gingerbread men, candy cans and light cords. If they consume poinsettias, holly, or mistletoe, it can make them sick.

Cats are also attracted to tinsel, because it’s shiny and fun to play with. “Long strands of tinsel can get stuck in the intestines of a dog or cat,” says Drengenberg. “So, if you have a pet that’s prone to eating unusual things, it’s best to skip the tinsel.” The same goes for ribbons, so remove them promptly after opening presents.

David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.