Don't Make Holidays a Ho-Ho-Horror

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

To keep the holidays joyful (and toy-full), here are some holiday safety tips.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Santa squeezes down the chimney, leaving presents under a desert-dry tree. Next door, Hanukah candles burn brightly -- long past bedtime. What's wrong with this picture?

Dried-out Christmas trees and forgotten candles are major holiday safety hazards, says the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 300 fires annually start with trees alone.

Thousands of children have spent holidays in hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries, the CPSC says. Some children have died; choking on small toys is the No. 1 killer.

And with all the holiday distractions, children can escape their parents' watchful eyes. "The highest incidence of household injuries occur at party times and during times of increased family activity," says Kate Perkins, MD, PhD, medical director of the Children's Health Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

To keep the holidays joyful (and toy-full), here are some holiday safety tips.

Toys and Gifts:

  • When toy shopping, skip thrift stores and garage sales. Recalled toys often end up there, so buyer beware.
  • Be sure that toys your child receives are appropriate for his or her age. Read the instructions and show your child how to use them properly.
  • Don't let very young children who still mouth objects play with toys meant for older siblings. Building blocks, crafts kits, board games with small playing pieces -- anything with small objects could be accidentally swallowed and pose a choking hazard.
  • Small, unpackaged toys come without warning labels. A "small parts tester" available at toy, drug, and hardware stores can help you check for safety.
  • Gift wrap, nuts, hard candy, and popcorn -- even batteries from electronic toys -- can be choking hazards. Plastic bags can cause suffocation.
  • Make sure kids aren't trying sleds, toboggans, scooters, bicycles, or other riding toys in streets where a car could hit them. Also, be sure they are supervised and wearing the right safety gear, including helmets.


  • If purchasing an artificial tree, look for a "Fire Resistant" label. This indicates that the tree will resist burning and should extinguish quickly, not that it will not burn.
  • When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness by looking for green needles that do not break between your fingers and a trunk that is sticky with resin.
  • Place the tree away from any fireplaces or radiators and out of the way of traffic. Keep the stand filled with water if it's a live tree. Check it daily.


  • Use only lights that have been tested for safety by a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Check each set (new or old) for broken wires or cracked sockets and throw out damaged sets.
  • Use no more than three sets of standard-size lights per extension cord.
  • Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree may become charged and may electrocute anyone who touches it.
  • Before using lights outdoors, make sure they have been approved for outdoor use.
  • Turn off all lights before you leave your home or go to bed. The lights could short and cause a fire.

Ornaments and Decorations:

  • Never use lighted candles on a tree; don't place them near other evergreens. Use only non-flammable candle holders and place candles where they can't be knocked down.
  • Keep lighted candles in sight; blow them out before bedtime.
  • Avoid decorations that are sharp or breakable. Keep ornaments with small, removable parts or that resemble food out of children's reach.
  • If using artificial snow sprays, follow directions carefully to avoid lung irritation.
  • If you have a fireplace, use caution when using "fire salts" that produce colored flames when thrown on firewood. Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace because they may ignite suddenly and cause a flash fire.

Party Safety:

  • Keep a watchful eye on children when there's a pool in the home. Visitors may forget to close pool gates. Children can wander in and easily drown.
  • Make sure you clean up after hosting a holiday party. If your child gets up during the night -- or before you do the next morning -- he could choke on leftover food or even drink leftover alcohol.

Holiday Visiting:

  • Check homes to ensure cabinets are childproof. If not, keep a close eye on your child.
  • If your child has food allergies, be careful. Holiday treats, breads, and candies may contain nuts; even a fried turkey may be cooked in peanut oil.
  • When traveling, make sure children are properly secured in an approved car seat.

With all the holiday chaos and activity, make a conscious effort to be vigilant, taking the time to remind others of potential hazards -- all to reduce the holiday safety risks to your family, says Perkins.

With reporting by Jennifer Warner and Tula Karras.

Originally published Dec. 8, 2003.

Medically updated Oct. 25, 2004.

SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: "Deck the Halls Safely This Season." WebMD Feature: "Avoid Toy Horror Stories." Kate Perkins, MD, PhD, medical director, Children's Health Clinic, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

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