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Written by:  Rick Epstein
Date: December 1, 2009

If my father had made a list of his top 10 fears, it would probably consist mostly of ways in which I might embarrass or disappoint him. But nestled in there at about No. 5 would be the fear of Christmas tree fires.

Dad would always buy a living tree – roots, dirt and all – partly so he could plant it in the backyard later on, but mostly to reduce its flammability. He would make sure it was well-watered, and he'd unplug the lights if the tree was to be unattended even for a few minutes.

Back then, very few things lit up, except for light bulbs or actual fire. So against a relatively dim background, a Christmas tree in full twinkle and glow must've seemed alarmingly bright. And what is an electric light except a teeny bit of fire under glass?

The fact that Dad endured the Christmas tree menace season after season was powerful testimony to his love for my mother. Mom was of Scandinavian Lutheran descent and she had to have a tree. Dad would have walked through fire for her, and fully expected that someday he'd have to.
When she looked at each year's tree, with its colored lights glowing, tinsel glittering and ornaments gleaming, she'd get a dreamy, peaceful feeling that started back in the ancestral homeland of Norway, flowed through her own childhood and on to that particular spectacular tree. But for all the joy it gave him, Dad would just as soon wrap festive electric lights around a vat of oily rags.

Dad had been brought up Jewish, a tradition in which beautifully decorated evergreens do not figure. But he was familiar with the story of Moses and the Burning Bush.

After New Year's, Dad would sigh with relief and plant the tree in the backyard. Years later, the accumulation of tall, droopy evergreens huddles together, looking like habitat for Hansel and Gretel. It's spooky.

So my wife and I don't bring in live firs or spruces, but I always make sure that the cut trees have plenty of water. You see, the moment I became a father, I also became MY father, inheriting in that instant his imagination when it comes to things that might crash, fall, explode, cause a rash or burst into flames. And it's lucky, because my daughters seem to dash through life, reckless as frat boys competing in the Running With Scissors 5K. At home, they leave the mayonnaise out to fester and put slippery magazines on the stairs. On the road, they tailgate and speed. Out shopping, they leave pocketbooks unattended and never save their receipts.

So now we approach the Christmas season with Sally, our 21-year-old, working in one of the world's danger-spots — Denmark. Seriously, it's a place where they put real burning candles on their Christmas trees and laugh at the possibilities.

But that's nothing compared to the pyromania at the core of the Feast of St. Lucia. On Dec. 13 there are processions all through Scandinavia — queues of little girls in white gowns brandishing candles. And those little girls are led by a slightly bigger girl who wears a wreath of lighted candles on her head! Wikipedia says that's how St. Lucia achieved hands-free illumination as she carried supplies to Christians who were hiding in caves. But Wikipedia does not mention what a bad idea this is.

What if the girl looks up and the fiery crown tumbles down her back? What if she bends over to tie her shoe? What if the kid behind her gets too close? What if, in the festive confusion, she tries to put on her gown after her candles have been ignited? Is it possible the U.N. knows about this and does nothing?! Is there at least adult supervision?

And by "adult," I mean "parental." Because safety is up to us parents. Although I've been kidding around about obsessive fears, there are a lot of house fires this time of year, and a bit of caution is called for in our holiday observances. And if you have a loved one in Scandinavia, advise her to leave the wearing of flaming crowns to specially trained children.

Rick Epstein can be reached at


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