7 Holiday Decorating Mistakes That Are Actually Dangerous

‘Tis the season to be merry, but be wary of these surprisingly common holiday decor disasters.

When it comes to holiday decor, there's no shortage of dos and don'ts. Of course, they're all just opinions—do buy a real tree, don't put your decor up too early, do take it all down promptly. The list goes on. When it comes to timing and style, it should be about what makes you happy. But when it comes to safety there really are a few dos and don'ts to take seriously. A big fall or small fire is enough to not just put a damper on the holiday but to cause serious harm. Whether you decorate weeks (even months) in advance or the day before, avoid these mistakes so you can have the safest holiday possible.

Fireplace with Nearby Christmas Tree, Stockings Hanging from Mantel, Presents, and Melted Candles
Getty/Tom Merton

Lighting Too Many Candles, Too Close

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Christmas Day sets the record for fires started by candles, with nearly three times the daily average. More than half of such fires are attributable to candles being too close to materials that could burn, from furniture to holiday decorations. Keep candles away from other objects, and never leave them unattended. And the easiest solution of all: simply switch to battery-operated.

Christmas Tree with Dropped Needles
Getty/Siede Preis

Buying the Wrong Tree

Nope, this isn't another debate about artificial vs. real trees. Whichever you buy, there are a few things to keep in mind. While trees are not the leading cause of holiday fires, their proximity to heat sources makes them an inherent risk, so be sure yours is fresh or fire-resistant. That's easy enough when purchasing an artificial tree: just check for the "fire resistant" label. Here's what to watch out for with a live tree:

  • Check for freshness; it should be green and the needles should be intact. If a shower of needles fall when you move the tree, that's a bad sign.
  • Look for sticky resin on the bottom and needles that bend, not break.
  • Before placing your tree in a stand with water, cut two inches of the trunk for better water absorption.
Fireplace with Christmas Fire Hazards, Stockings, Presents, and Christmas Tree

Setting the Tree in the Wrong Place

Avoid setting the tree up by radiators, vents, heaters, or fireplaces, all of which dry out the tree that much quicker. FEMA advises placing your tree at least three feet from any kind of heat source. Check the tree's water level daily to keep it healthy and fresh, and throw it out as soon as it dries out.

Potted Poinsettia Plants in Greenhouse
Getty/Kathrin Ziegler

Picking Poisonous Plants

For pet owners and parents of young children, certain flowers and plants can be a dangerous addition to the home. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that seasonal favorites like amaryllis, mistletoe, balsam, pine, cedar, holly, and poinsettias could harm pets. Keep holiday flowers and greenery out of reach or opt for artificial plants.

Golden Retriever Laying on Wrapping Paper and Tinsel
Getty/Bill Varie

Using Dangerous Decorations

Another threat to curious pets and small children? The tree trimmings and other dangerous decorations. Your favorite glass ornaments can break and cut tiny fingers, while ribbon, string, and tinsel used to wrap presents and zhush up the tree cause a choking hazard. If you've got a baby, young toddler, or investigative pet, maybe skip the tinsel and glass ornaments on the tree (or keep them out of reach). Clean up as you go when unwrapping presents to keep these all-too-easy-to-ingest materials out of their mouths.

Person Balancing on Small Ladder Putting Lights on Christmas Tree
AlenaPaulus / Getty

Ignoring Ladder Safety

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports roughly 160 decorating-related injuries daily during the holiday season, with about half of those related to falls. Save yourself a trip to the ER by following a few basic protocols:

  • Start by using a ladder that extends three feet over the roofline for outdoor jobs and set up single-extension ladders at a 75 degree angle.
  • Make sure the ladder is on level, solid ground.
  • Wear shoes and check to ensure the rungs are dry before you start climbing.
  • Don't stand on top of a ladder or overreach.
Messy Christmas Lights in Extension Cord
Getty/Beau Lark/Corbis/VCG

Creating an Electrical Overload

About one-third of Christmas tree fires are caused by electrical problems—not exactly what you had in mind when you started stringing lights on the tree. When it comes to lights, a little goes a long way. The CPSC advises no more than three standard-size sets of lights per single extension cord. Here are more safety tips for keeping your holiday display safe:

  • Shop for lights that have been tested for safety and use indoor lights inside and outdoor lights, well, outside.
  • Throw out any cords and lights that are loose, frayed, cracked, or otherwise damaged. (And if it's time to do a little shopping…we have a few festive ideas.)
  • Turn off all holiday lights when you go to bed or before you leave the house.
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Southern Living is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. National Fire Protection Association. Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are among the leading days of the year for U.S. home fires.

  2. FEMA. Put a freeze on winter holiday fires.

  3. American Veterinary Medical Association. Winter holiday pet safety.

  4. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Holiday safety.

  5. National Fire Protection Association. Christmas tree fires. Updated Dec. 2022.

  6. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Holiday decoration safety tips.

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