By Gordon Williams 

There are a couple of things you should know about candles if you want to dampen the risk of a holiday-season home fire. 

First, December is the biggest month of the year for candle sales. No surprise, given that the three seasonal holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa — all make copious use of candles. The very basis of the Hanukkah celebration is the lighting of candles for eight successive nights.  

Second, because we light so many candles in December, it figures that December is the worst month of the year for home fires started by those tiny, open flames. “It’s fun to decorate for the winter holidays, but holiday decorations can increase your risk for a home fire,” says the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). “As you deck the halls this season, be fire smart.” 

You don’t have to exclude candles from your holiday celebration to keep your home fire-free. To do so would rob the season of both festive cheer and religious significance. The very reason Hanukkah is celebrated, for instance, would be lost without the lighting of candles. The Christmas celebration involves the lighting of Advent candles. Kwanzaa features a candle holder containing seven candles — three red, three green and one black.  

What you do need to do is learn — and practice  — are the rules for using candles safely. You’ll find plenty of advice from FEMA, the National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) and the American Red Cross. 

Here are the two most important rules about home candle safety: 

  • Never put a burning candle within 12 inches of anything that might burn — drapes, clothing, Christmas tree, holiday gift wrappings. 
  • Never leave a burning candle unattended. Make sure all candles are extinguished before you go to bed or leave home.

Just following those two rules will go a long way toward keeping you safe from candle fires. And there is still more you can do to use candles safely. Here are tips from the NFPA, a non-profit organization that works to reduce death and loss due to fire:

  • Always place candles in a sturdy candle holder — one that won’t tip over easily.  
  • Put the candle holder on a flat, sturdy, uncluttered surface. 
  • Never pass candles from one person to another.
  • When lighting candles at a candle-lighting service, have the person holding an unlit candle dip it into the flame of a burning candle. Not the other way around. (This is particularly relevant for Hanukkah where one candle is lit and used to light the other candles used in the service.) 
  • Never put lighted candles in windows where drapes or blinds could catch fire. (An article that ran in the Red Cross regional blog in November 2021 told of a fire in New York City, where Hanukkah candles placed in a window set curtains on fire, killing a mother and three children.)
  • If you light a candle you want to burn continuously, enclose it in a glass container and put the container in a sink, metal tray or a deep basin filled with water. 

NFPA says that when lighting a candle,  “Keep your hair and any loose clothing away from the flame. Don’t burn a candle all the way down — put it out before it gets too close to the holder or container.” 

NFPA further says to never use a candle if oxygen is in use in the house. Never use candles to light the house if the power goes out — rely instead on flashlights. Consider using electric, battery-powered candles instead of wax candles whenever you want to add a warming touch to your holiday scene. “Think about using flameless candles in your home, “ says NFPA. “They look and smell like real candles.”

FEMA, the government’s preparedness agency, warns against letting burning candles get too close to the family Christmas tree. “A dry Christmas tree can burn very hot and very fast,” FEMA says.

The Red Cross talks about having enough smoke detectors around the home to alert you if fire does start. Have an alarm in every room where people sleep, outside the sleeping area and at least one alarm on every level of the home. The Red Cross Home Fire Campaign installs alarms at no cost in homes that lack them.  

Finally, resist the temptation to keep the festivities alive by lighting candles in the bedroom. That raises the risk you will fall asleep with a burning candle in the room. “More than one-third of home candle fires started in the bedroom,” says the NFPA. “Thirty-five percent of candle-fire deaths occur in the bedroom.” So one iron-clad rule is to never use candles in the bedroom — or in any other room where people might fall asleep.  

All of us at the American Red Cross hope you’ll takes these steps to keep your holidays festive and safe! Visit redcross.org/fire for more information or download the free Red Cross Emergency app which you can find by searching “American Red Cross” in app stores. 

American Red Cross Historical Poster from 1917 with the message: A candle in every windo and a Red Cross member in every home.

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