Winter lights: Tips for a safer and more sparkling winter season

It’s that time of year for important seasonal decisions: pumpkin spice or eggnog latte? Peppermint or clove-scented candle? And how many layers are optimal for a trip outside? The end of the year is celebrated with festive decorations and lights in many cultures. During the winter season we may illuminate rooms with candles, adorn outdoor and indoor spaces with strings of electric lights and, of course, start kindling in the fireplace.

All of this light and heat can increase the possibility of household fires, introducing the potential of damage to your home, belongings and valuables. Luckily, a few important winter lighting tips can help to keep your home and collection shining and safe.


Bright lights, bright home, (risk of) electrical fire


Many of us enjoy seeing an illuminated display on a neighbor’s front lawn, or icicle lights suspended from a rooftop. While planning decorative holiday light configurations, however, it’s important to remember that adding additional lighting outside and inside our home may strain electrical circuits. Combining lights with greenery adds an additional risk—the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shares that electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in more than 44% of home Christmas tree fires.1 For a safer lights display, we recommend the following precautions:

  • Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use, not both—check the recommendation on the electrical lights you purchase
  • Replace any lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections
  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the recommended number of light strands to connect
  • Consider using a strip surge protector to prevent power surges (here are a few recommended by Best Reviews)


Some good sense about sunlight


While light provides visibility and heat, it also illuminates—literally and figuratively—the valuables in our home, including our artwork, jewelry and other collectibles. In our homes, we usually have two main sources of light: ambient light, which enters through windows, and manufactured light. Ambient light contains ultraviolet light which can cause damage to furniture, rugs, books and artwork.

Light damage to valuables and artwork, which usually takes the form of bleaching, and/or the fading of dyes and pigments, is cumulative and irreversible. (Imagine Rudolph’s red nose as tan to visualize the negative impact of sustained light exposure). To prevent light damage, one needs to limit an art object’s exposure to ultraviolet rays and heat, reducing both the duration and intensity of the exposure. The American Institute for Conservation posts helpful advice for collectors, including:2

  • Avoid placing art next to light sources, or lights next to art
  • Place artwork on walls with no direct sun exposure
  • Use LED lights rather than halogen lights
  • Utilize window shades and filters where possible
  • Decrease the number of light fixtures
  • Decrease the wattage of bulbs
  • Use light dimmers, viewer activated switches or motion sensors


Keep the Picasso, pines and stockings away from the heat


Although chestnuts roasting on an open fire are a warming thought, a flame in your living room isn’t. To enjoy curling up by the fireplace with a cup of cocoa and better peace of mind, consider the following tips for better fireplace safety:

  • Have fireplaces and chimneys cleaned and inspected by a qualified professional every year
  • Install a fireplace screen to prevent hot embers and ash from coming into the room
  • Never remove hot ash from fireplace
  • Use a fireproof metal container to remove cool ash from fireplace and place a safe distance from the home
  • Install and maintain both smoke and CO2 alarms
  • Never place decorations such as stockings, greenery or trees too close to a fire


The heat of a fire can also be damaging for artwork and valuables, so consider placement as you decorate. Although the fireplace mantel might seem like a nice place for your painting, it really isn’t. Above a fireplace, an artwork slowly dehydrates. Heat from the fire will likely dry out the canvas, causing the material to contract and the paint to flake off. Smoke damage is also a possibility, as porous materials—like the fiber in canvas and paper, can absorb the smoke and smell “smoked.” Soot and ash particles could also settle of the surface of art objects and cause chemical deterioration.

The fireplace isn’t the only heat source to watch in your home. Electrical equipment, radiators, heat vents, and lights can also pose a danger—as can candles, which we cover in the next section. Be mindful to keep decorations away from these areas to avoid one common cause of holiday fires. And, if your holiday celebrations include a Christmas tree, know that they can cause particular fire hazards this time of year. Keep trees at least three feet away from any heat source and water them daily to help prevent dryness. You can find more helpful tree tips here.


Candle, candle burning bright  


Candles not only brighten the early darkness of winter, they make a holiday buffet more appealing, mark celebrations of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, and spread the aromas of the season—whether you favor cinnamon or clove. Yet these atmospheric flames can also be culprit behind holiday fires. More than a third of home fires involving decorative items are caused by candles, and in December that number is above 50%.3

Candle fires are typically caused when a flammable item, such as a dry holiday tree, decoration or piece of furniture is placed too close to the candle. Even cloth napkins on the dining room tables can catch fire (about 8% of candle fires start in the dining room.) According to the National Fire Protection Association, the two peak days for candle fires were Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.4

How to strike an atmospheric balance between flickering flames and at-home safety?

  • Install a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, where candles are often used
  • Place candles on solid tables or counters
  • Keep lit candles away from decorations and other flammables
  • Trim candle wicks to ¼ inch before lighting
  • Consider using flameless candles
  • Choose holiday decorations that are flame resistant or flame retardants
  • Refrain from placing decorations or artwork in the kitchen


While these tips can help guide you to a safer winter season, there are many more tips that can help with home management and safety in the months to come. It’s a good idea to consult with your independent agent or insurance provider and their risk management team, as they can often provide actionable advice that can be customized specifically for your home, artwork, valuables and lifestyle. Start the conversation, and may you enjoy light, warmth, health and safety this winter season.


Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).