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10 Holiday Decorating Mistakes That Could Put Your Family in Danger

While Christmas decorations are meant to bring cheer, some holiday staples do more harm than good.

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The plants you display are poisonous

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias probably aren’t toxic. One review in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine found that only about 3 percent of children who eat it will develop any symptoms, and even animals are unlikely to have any health effects. Your bigger concern should be holly. The berries look innocent enough to kids, but just five berries could lead to vomiting and abdominal cramping in children because they contain compounds called saponin. Bittersweet and Jerusalem cherry fruits can also cause GI issues and might even be fatal to kids. “You can’t be too careful when displaying flowers and plants of any kind, because they pose choking risks,” says child safety expert Debra Holtzman, author of The Safe Baby. “Watch out for fallen berries.” Don’t miss these other 18 holiday decorating mistakes you didn’t know you were making.

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You never checked your string light package

Holiday lights and other decorative lighting cause an average of 150 fires every year, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International. No need to fear your string lights, as long as you take the proper precautions. “When you use electric lights, only use ones recognized for safety,” says Holtzman. Make sure your lights have the UL Listing Mark, which means third-party engineers gave it the stamp of approval for risk of fire, electric shock, and other dangers. The label can also tell you if those lights are safe to use outside. A green UL label means it can only be used indoors, but a red one is a sign that you can hang them outdoors, too.

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Your batteries aren’t secure

Small, flashy decorations like light-up holiday jewelry and battery-powered candles can contain lithium “button batteries.” If children find and swallow one of those little round batteries, it could get stuck in their esophagus. The electric current has a chemical reaction with saliva that could do serious damage to a child’s esophagus in as little as two hours, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As long as a device uses screws to keep the battery compartment shut, your child won’t be able to get the batteries out, says Holtzman. “For ones that don’t have screws in the back, use duct tape to keep the compartments closed,” she says.

You let your tree dry out

Every year, fire departments respond to about 210 Christmas tree-related fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. And while that means the odds of your tree catching fire aren’t all that high, the damage could be worse if anything does happen. One in 31 Christmas tree fires is deadly, while just one in 144 of total home fires kills someone inside, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.  Most are caused by electrical problems or putting a tree too close to a heat source, but there are other steps you can take, too. A nicely watered tree isn’t a risk, but a dry tree is more prone to go up in flames. Make sure you buy a fresh tree, then slice a piece off the bottom of the trunk before setting it up to help it absorb water, Holtzman suggests. If you use a fake tree, check the box to make sure it’s fire-resistant. Check out these other 12 secrets Christmas trees wish you knew.

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You plug your lights in any old outlet

Outdoor holiday lights should only be plugged into ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets, which monitors electric currents to protect you from electrical shock. They look similar to other outlets but have a test and reset buttons on them. The National Electric Code requires new outlets in bathrooms, outdoor spaces, kitchens, and other areas near water to use GFCI outlets, but some older homes might not have the protections. If yours doesn’t, you can buy a GFCI adapter for as little as $10 from a home improvement store. Find out the 10 other hidden holiday dangers to avoid this season.


Your tree isn’t stable

Test your stand to make sure it’s sturdy before you start trimming the tree. “Not anchoring your tree can definitely be an issue, especially with young children and even pets,” says Holtzman. Take steps to keep it from being knocked over by keeping it away from doorways, she suggests. If you’re worried, put a safety gate around the tree so curious kids can’t bump it down. Learn the 8 best ways to store Christmas decorations when the holiday season wraps up.


You don’t plan your ornament placement

Kids and even pets might be tempted to pull at ornaments near the bottom of the tree, so place any fragile ones toward the top of the tree. If little hands did knock glass bulbs down, those ornaments could break and leave glass that could hurt your child. “It’s always a good idea not to have them in reach, especially antique and heirloom ones,” says Holtzman. Find out if your vintage Christmas decorations are worth a lot of money.

Candy-CaneBoiarkina Marina/Shutterstock

You have a thing for fake candy canes

You’d never put a fake candy cane ornament in your own mouth, but a child might not know any better. “Avoid ones that look like candy or food that may tempt a child,” says Holtzman. Some decorations could contain lead or cadmium, which could be poisonous if your child tries to eat them. Decorate your tree with these 20 easy Christmas ornament crafts for kids instead.


You want candles burning all the time

You’re probably tempted to use that Christmassy Yankee Candle as soon as you open it—but remember that even though it smells nice and gives a cozy glow, a candle is still an open flame. The top four days for candle fires are Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Eve, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Whether you’re adding some ambiance or lighting a menorah, treat a candle like the fire hazard it is. Never put one on a Christmas tree, and be sure to blow it out when you leave the room, suggests Holtzman. “If you do decide to use them, keep them on a stable, heat-resistant surface where kids can’t reach them or knock them over,” she says. Better yet, stick with a battery-operated candle instead of a real flame.


Your decorations are a choking hazard

You don’t give toddlers toys with tiny parts that they could swallow, so don’t leave those choking hazards around the house either. Kids might want to stick small parts, like nativity scene figurines, in their mouths. “They’re beautiful and kids are going to be attracted to them,” says Holtzman. Leave them out of reach from little hands. Next, here’s how to have your healthiest holiday season yet.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.