These seasonal favorites may be festive, but they also come with a few risks.

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A fresh Christmas tree makes any room merry and bright, but if you don't follow the proper safety guidelines, you could be putting your entire holiday—and home—at risk. The most common danger posed by Christmas trees is fire; according to the National Fire Protection Association, trees caused an average of 160 home fires—resulting in an average of more $10,000,000 in property damages—each year from 2014 to 2018. Choosing a fresh tree; positioning it correctly in your home; using certified, unbroken lights; and preventing other potential issues—from pests to a tip-over—will help you celebrate safely until the new year. Ahead, every Christmas tree safety tip you need to heed during the holiday season.

muted ornaments christmas tree
Credit: Thomas Loof

Always choose a fresh tree.

One of the best ways to prevent a fire is by choosing a healthy, fresh-cut tree. "A fresh, healthy tree will not sustain a flame—they have to be very dry," says Bob Colavita of Colavita Christmas Tree Farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania. When choosing a pre-cut tree, check for freshness by closing your hand around a branch (sans gloves) and gently pulling the needles toward you. "The needles should not come off in your hand," says Colavita. "If you get one or two that's fine, but you should not get a fistful." Another technique: Lightly bend the tree's outer branches. "You're not trying to damage the tree," says Colavita, "but they should bend easily and not snap in your hand as if they are dry pieces of kindling." A similar process works with single needles: If a needle breaks in half instead of bending, the tree is too dry.

Prevent unwelcome holiday visitors.

Before taking your tree home, ask the farmers to shake it out—many have a machine that does this—to keep unwanted guests from joining you for the holidays. "Trees are in nature, so they could get a spider or a praying mantis nest," says Colavita; he's also seen mice and birds vacate fresh-cut trees post-shake. "Insects aren't really dangerous, but they can be a nuisance."

Carefully cut the trunk.

The bottom of your tree trunk should have a clean, square cut, or else you risk the tree wobbling in your tree stand. If you cut the tree yourself—or have it cut on-site that day—the farm should send you home with an even, ready-to-mount cut. But if you're purchasing a pre-cut tree, the bottom will have closed up; once you get home, says Colavita, you'll need to use a sharp saw to take off about half an inch from the bottom. This allows it to continue to soak up water throughout the season—another essential fire-prevention procedure.

Buy the right tree stand.

Most trees don't need to be tethered to a wall, but it's critical that you invest in a sturdy tree stand sized correctly for your evergreen. "If you buy a Christmas tree stand that maxes out at six feet, it's designed to hold a six-foot tree—and if you put an eight-foot tree in it, you're looking for trouble," says Colavita, who sells Cinco stands ($27.48, homedepot.com) at the farm. "If you're buying the eight-foot tree, I would buy the 10-foot stand. It gives you an added layer of security." Read the instructions on your stand carefully to make sure you're tightening the bolts properly and securing your tree risk-free. "A sturdy stand is the best," says Colavita. "It can be metal or plastic, but it should be sturdy with a wide base to support the tree, and it should have at least a gallon reservoir."

Install the tree properly. 

Choose a tree that fits the space you're decorating, says Colavita—even if that means bringing a tape measure to the tree lot to check the width—and place it in a location in your home that isn't too close to heat; you don't want your tree too near the fireplace, in front of a heater or radiator, or even in a large window where magnified sunlight can dry it out. The NFPA recommends placing trees three feet—or farther—from lights, vents, and other heat sources, and never using them to block an exit. It's also important to put the tree stand on a level surface; Colavita recommends using a board underneath your stand if you set it up on carpet. "If the tree is on carpeting, and you have a tree in a stand that's not the right size, it tips over," he says. "It's just gravity at that point."

Don't forget to water it.

Even the freshest tree won't last until Christmas Eve if you don't take care of it. "You would be surprised how many folks take the tree home, put water in it the day they bring it home, and never water it again," says Colavita. "That's another way to keep a tree from catching fire—keep it watered." He recommends watering the tree in the morning and evening (don't worry—you can't over-water it). "You're bringing a live thing into your house, and you really need to take care of it like anything else," he says. "The reasons you have problems with Christmas trees is the person who brings it in is not taking the amount of concern and care that they need to."

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