Deck the Halls Safely

The winter holidays may be different this year, with fewer gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. But there will still be traditional decorations and cozy fires, and many families might welcome a small number of holiday visitors who take appropriate health precautions.



Although 2020 poses unique challenges, every winter holiday season requires caution and common sense. The combination of winter weather, flammable decorations, and holiday festivities can create dangerous situations. Considering the potential risks and taking steps to address them in advance might make for a happier and healthier holiday season.

Trees, Ladders, and Lights

You want your home to be welcoming and showcase your style, of course. But you also want it to be safe.

  • Make sure that your walkways and porch have adequate lighting and are clear of ice and snow. Salt icy areas. Repair stairs and handrails if necessary.
  • Verify that you have working smoke alarms with fresh batteries on every level of your home. If you bring a natural Christmas tree into your home, make sure it’s as fresh as possible and keep it well watered throughout the holiday season. Use only nonflammable or flame-retardant decorations and keep them away from all sources of heat or flames, including fireplaces, heating vents, and space heaters.
  • Place candles away from flammable materials (including a Christmas tree) and in a stable position where they will not be knocked over. Never go to bed or leave home with candles still burning. Consider using battery-operated flameless candles.
  • When hanging holiday decorations, use a sturdy ladder and make sure it is on level ground. Have someone act as a spotter and help to stabilize it, and never stand on a higher rung than is recommended by the ladder manufacturer. And stay off the roof — it may be safe for Santa, but it’s risky for the rest of us.
  • Before installing lights, carefully check the strands to verify that wires and sockets are in good condition, and pay attention to the manufacturers’ instructions. Lights and other holiday decorations are rated for indoor, outdoor, or dual use. Replace burned out lights before you hang the strand. Replace damaged strands rather than trying to repair them. Don’t attach wires with nails or staple guns. Hanging on small hooks or using tape is safer.
  • Consider replacing old incandescent lights with LED lights, which use a fraction of the energy. LEDs produce almost no heat, so they are safer when hanging on a natural tree or other situations where heat can be dangerous.
  • Don’t overload an extension cord. Extension cords are rated for indoor or outdoor usage and a maximum amperage; add up the amperage of decorations that are plugged into each cord. Don’t lay extension cords across walkways or other areas where people might trip or damage the cord.
  • Make sure that electrical connections stay dry. Wrapping with vinyl electrical tape is helpful, but for wetter conditions, try this trick: Cut holes on either corner of a plastic bag, make the connection inside the bag, roll up the bag with the wires inside, and tape the corners.
  • Outdoor electrical outlets should have a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) installed by a licensed electrician. A portable GFCI adapter can be plugged in directly and requires no special skill. If the outlet is open to the weather, an all-weather electrical box can help keep it dry when a cord is plugged in.
  • If decorations trip a circuit breaker, look for damaged wires or connections. You may have to reduce the load on that circuit.
  • Unplug lights before going to bed or leaving home. A simple timer can turn your lights on and off at the same time each day.

Practice Social Safety

If you entertain during the holidays, even if it’s just for a small group, be sure you follow all health guidelines from local, state, and national authorities. If you serve alcohol, take steps to moderate your guests’ drinking and yours, too. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Serve food, which helps people absorb alcohol, and have plenty of water and nonalcoholic drinks available.
  • Never encourage guests to drink, and politely ask them to stop if they appear to be inebriated. Never serve alcohol to minors.
  • Stop serving alcohol an hour or two before your guests will be leaving, to give them time to process the alcohol before they drive. Offer to call a transportation service or arrange for another driver if it seems unsafe for a guest to drive. If other transportation is not available, allow an inebriated guest to sleep at your home.

Review Your Insurance Coverage

Check your homeowners or renters policy to make sure you have appropriate coverage for damage to your property and possessions. Also be sure that you have sufficient liability coverage if a guest is somehow injured and decides to sue for damages. If you plan to entertain frequently when it is safe to do so, an umbrella policy with additional liability coverage may be appropriate, especially if you have significant financial assets to protect.