13 Ways the Holidays Can Kill You
The Grim Reaper is hardly the mythical figure you want to see on Christmas. Stay safe this year by avoiding Yuletide no-no's
The holidays are traditionally a time to kick back at home with the family and put depressing thoughts—like death, for example—aside in exchange for fuzzier feelings of comfort and joy. Unfortunately, the Grim Reaper is not one to take a holiday, even if it's Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year's Eve. His handiwork often manifests itself in some of our favorite holiday home traditions, too, from living room Christmas trees, which catch fire and kill about 15 of us each year, to backyard sledding, which sends more than 33,000 of us to the hospital annually.
To make sure Death doesn't nab a seat at your holiday table this year, we took a look at the different ways he tries to sideline this most wonderful time of the year. The hope is that you'll avoid his sinister plans so that you can savor the comforts and joys of many holidays to come.
You'd think by now we'd have this whole Christmas tree safety thing down. But each year, hundreds of house fires start at the Christmas tree, resulting in about 15 deaths and $13 million in property damage. You can avoid tannenbaum tragedies by taking some very simple precautions, such as selecting a fresh tree, watering it once a day, and keeping it away from fireplaces and heating fixtures.
Outdoing our neighbors with Clark Griswold–like holiday lighting displays is as American as greasy fast food and suburban sprawl. Just try not to make house fires a part of your annual holiday tradition. Avoid Christmastime conflagrations with simple measures, such as using indoor lights inside and outdoor lights outside, checking for cracked or broken sockets and frayed wires, and limiting yourself to three strands of lights per extension cord. During the two months surrounding the holiday season, more than 14,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to holiday decorating each year.
Oh by gosh, by golly, it turns out that holly and mistletoe can actually kill you. The pretty red berries of the holly plant are extremely poisonous, as are mistletoe's toxic berries, leaves, and stems. Keep these plants—as well as Jerusalem cherries and bittersweet—well out of reach of children, as well as your pets.
Hanging the stockings by the chimney with care is a well-known Christmas tradition. But use just as much care when firing up your fireplace this holiday season. On average, fires in and around a chimney or fireplace occur more than 25,000 times each year, leading to 10 deaths. So before you gather 'round the hearth, make sure your damper is open, and cover your fireplace with a protective screen or grate. Also, don't place your Christmas tree anywhere near the fireplace, and, as tempting as it might be on Christmas morning, don't toss ripped-up wrapping paper into the fireplace; it may create enough sparks and embers to ignite a blaze.
Unfortunately, sometimes the holidays entail leaving the safety and comforts of home to visit family in their abodes. So, whether you're driving over the river and through the woods—or taking the interstate—to grandmother's house this holiday season, be sure to proceed with caution. A lethal combination of drunk driving, wintry weather conditions, and road-weary travelers results in approximately 400 highway deaths each year between December 24 and December 28, and the number rises again on New Year's Eve. So if you must take to the road around the holidays, figure out who will be your designated driver now. Better yet, take a cab.
In the mad dash to get Christmas dinner ready for family and friends, it's easy to overlook the oven mitt you left precariously close to the stovetop or the big, boiling-over pot of potatoes that's causing your burners to erupt into a full-on fire. The inherent stress and chaos of preparing holiday meals is probably why kitchen fires flare up even more than usual this time of year. Since most cooking fires involve the stovetop, keep anything that can catch fire away from it. And if you're simmering, baking, or roasting food, check on it regularly and use a timer to remind you that you're cooking.
Aside from back injuries and achy muscles, shoveling the driveway for arriving holiday guests can put you at an increased risk of cardiac arrest. According to several studies, the number of people who die of heart failure due to exertion tends to spike in the week following a blizzard. If you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle, shovel snow slowly and in short intervals, especially if you smoke or have a history of heart disease.
Whether they're for the menorah or the Christmas dinner table, candles are a holiday mainstay. But did you know a home candle fire is reported every 34 minutes in the United States? In fact, an average of 12,000 candle-related fires each year cause about 150 deaths and $393 million in property damage. Never leave candles unattended. And, if possible, try using LED candles, which flicker and create an amber light so authentic, you'd swear it was the real thing.
Remember when Little Harry Bailey's sled veered off course and into an ice hole in It's a Wonderful Life? This was not an isolated incident. Turns out more than 33,000 of us are injured while sledding or tobogganing each year, and children ages 5 to 9 are most at risk. Be sure to sled in spacious areas with gently sloping hills and that there's enough room at the end of the ride to stop safely. Also, check for obstructions along your sledding path, such as fences, trees, or rocks, as well as frozen-over ponds and streams.
Sitting around the Christmas tree in a drafty old house might prompt some of us to crank up a space heater. Just keep in mind that one-third of home-heating-related fires—and about 80 percent of home-heating fire deaths—are caused by these supplementary heaters. Keep them away from anything that can burn, such as upholstered furniture, clothing, or bedding. Aside from space-heater flare-ups, the holidays are prime time for home-heating fires in general. In 2008, heating equipment was involved in an estimated 66,100 home fires, which resulted in about 480 deaths, 1,660 injuries, and $1.1 billion in property damage.
In a recent survey by the Home Safety Council, 82 percent of homeowners admitted climbing on chairs, counters, and shelves—instead of proper stepladders—when decorating for the holidays. Even when using ladders, many people tended to ignore basic safety precautions, such as placing ladders on level ground. Whether you're planting your star atop the Christmas tree or stringing holiday lights outside, keep in mind that about half a million people are injured each year in ladder-related accidents, so be careful.
Thinking about hosting a holiday party at your house this year? If so, make sure neither you nor any of your guests get too sauced. Otherwise, you might become one of the approximately 79,000 fatalities associated with excessive drinking each year.
It's not just snow shoveling that can induce a holiday heart attack. According to an alarming 2004 study, more heart-related deaths occur on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year among people who are not already in the hospital. The second-highest death-toll day is December 26, and the third highest is New Year's Day. Heart researchers speculate that the rise in what they dub "Merry Christmas Coronaries" might be due to over-rich and salty diets, holiday-related stress, and a desire to delay treating symptoms until after the holidays.