By Gordon Williams 

Hanukkah — the Jewish festival of lights — is a joyous holiday, marked by the celebratory lighting of candles, the giving of gifts to children and the savoring of exotic foods. Yet, unless great care is exercised, the combination of candles and cooking can turn the joy into tragedy. 

To drive home the point of Hanukkah fire safety, the National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) cites a fire in Brooklyn, New York, started when holiday candles set drapes ablaze, that killed a mother and her three children. 

Because the risk of holiday fires is high, there is plenty of safety material available from such organizations as the NFPA and the Jewish Federation of Seattle. Even if you don’t observe Hanukkah, which begins on November 28th this year, these are good-to-know fire safety rules. Kwanza involves the lighting of candles and many households light candles at Christmas time.  You need to be careful when lighting candles no matter which of these holidays you celebrate.  

Candles are the most obvious danger while celebrating Hanukkah. The holiday lasts eight nights; each night candles are lit in an eight-branch candle holder called a menorah. One candle is lit the first night, two the second night and so on. By the final night, the menorah holds eight burning candles, plus a ninth used to light the others. Once lit, the candles are allowed to burn themselves out. Often the menorah is placed near a window so others can see you are celebrating.  

Lighting the candles is central to celebrating the holiday, so the lesson here is to light up the menorah but do so safely. Here are some of the safety rules from the Jewish Federation of Seattle: 

  • Put your menorah on a non-flammable surface — stone or marble, steel, or glass. 
  • If you put the menorah on a table, make sure the menorah won’t tip over if the table is bumped. 
  • Don’t leave the menorah unattended, and don’t leave the room where candles are burning. 
  • Keep the menorah high enough that children or pets can’t reach it. 
  • Be especially cautious when children are lighting the candles. An adult should always be present to provide support and to intervene if necessary.  

The NFPA offers some additional suggestions. “Handheld candles should never be passed from one person to another, ” says the organization. When lighting one candle from another, it advises, “have the person with the unlit candle dip their candle into the flame of the lit candle.” 

Finally, the NFPA warns, “Lit candles should never be placed in a window where a blind or curtain could catch fire.” 

The kitchen is always a dangerous place at holiday time. We spend more time in the kitchen, and there are more things going on to distract us., More home fires start in the kitchen than any other room in the house, and more kitchen fires start during holiday season than any other time of the year. 

Fried foods pose the greatest danger since hot oil can catch fire easily. As a recent article in the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal points out, “Jewish people spend the eight days of Hanukkah indulging in fried foods.”  Two Hanukkah favorites are potato pancakes (latkes) and doughnuts (sufganiyot).  Both are made by frying the ingredients in boiling hot oil. 

Here are some safe-cooking tips from the Jewish Federation of Seattle. 

  • Never turn away or leave the stove top unattended while cooking with oil. If you must turn away, turn off the heat and remove the oil from the hot surface. 
  • Keep anything that might catch fire away from the stove top. 
  • Keep kids safe by providing a yard of protection. Keep them at least three feet away from all exposed sides of the stove top. 
  • When you are done cooking, turn off the heating element and move the pan to a cool location. 

Finally, know what to do if a pan does catch fire. Pouring water on a grease fire can spread the flames. Have a pan lid or cookie sheet nearby when you fry. If a pan catches fire, turn off the heat immediately and slide the metal sheet over the burning pan. Slamming it down can cause the flames to blossom, so put the sheet at the edge of the pan and slide it slowly until the pan is completely covered. 

It’s possible to ensure our favorite holiday traditions are both festive and safe, and that memories with friends and family are happy ones. Follow these tips and enjoy your festival of lights. Hanukkah sameach!

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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