The perils of vintage Christmas decor

christmas lights

We love Christmas vintage. The tiny glass rocket birds with their springy legs and tree clips. The slightly chippy papier mache Nativity figures. The flannel stockings. And for the most part, we can enjoy every moment, from the time we unwrap them from their tissue paper until the moment we wrap them up for their long summer’s rest. So, it is at the risk of being branded a giant holiday buzzkill that I’ve gathered together a post of safety issues with vintage Christmas decor that ought to be mentioned.

christmas lights
Vintage Christmas light strings and electric candles may have wiring that is no longer safe, note the electrical tape on the candle base–what’s it covering?


Old Christmas lights present two main perils to think about: heat and electricity. 

Older incandescent bulbs throw off heat. Serious heat. Enough heat that they can melt the needles on an artificial tree. And perhaps ignite a dried out natural tree. How often that happens is debated, but really, once is plenty if it’s your house. Rule of thumb, if you’re not in the room with older bulbs that throw heat, unplug them. 

As for the electrical dangers with vintage light strings (and vintage extension cords), a basic safety check will get you past those.

  • Are the wires flexible?
  • Are there any bare spots on the cord?
  • Are all the bulbs and sockets well connected?
  • Are there any missing bulbs?
  • Is the plug polarized?
  • Does the plug have a fuse?
  • Are you using inside bulbs inside and outside bulbs outside?
  • Were they tested for safety by a reputable testing laboratory?
christmas electric candles
The candle to the left appears to be okay to use, the others not really.

The same basic self preservation rule applies to both vintage light strings and potato salad that’s sat in the sun for a few hours: when in doubt throw them out.

For more details on how to safely use Christmas lights, the National Fire Protection Association has a checklist.

As a vintage lover, I loathed the early LED fairy lights. Their icy blue-white light was more suited to an interrogation than a cozy Christmas. It still feels like a compromise, but even an ardent vintage purist will admit the newer LED lights are: 1) nowhere near as offensive;  2) wildly more energy efficient and 3) ridiculously convenient because you can safely plug together enough strings to make Clark Griswold openly weep with joy.

If you are lucky enough to have one of those amazing aluminum Christmas trees, hopefully you have one of those amazing rotating color wheel lamps as well. According to Retro Renovation, aluminum trees were not designed to be used with strings of lights. An exposed wire or short has the potential to make the entire tree an electrocution waiting to happen. 

And finally, if you’re running extension cords, and heaven knows you are, make sure they are rated for the load you are asking them to handle and that you place them so they are safe from both an electrical and a trip hazard perspective. The Electrical Safety Foundation has a guide.

Unexpected Chemistry

We stopped using tinsel a few years ago when it was decided the decorative value didn’t warrant the time and aggravation of picking it all off  before the tree was composted. In my kidhood, we carefully removed the tinsel and draped it on a card to use year after year. Who knew that tinsel we were plucking was made of lead? According to an article in the Atlantic, the lead was perhaps less a hazard than the aluminum that preceded it, which was highly flammable. Lead was banned by the FDA in 1972, now tinsel is made of mylar or another plastic. But if you have the old stuff hanging around, best not to eat any of it.

Those awesome bubble lights look so fun and charming. Who knew they were filled with methylene chloride? Those little bubble tubes of happy can poison you if you break them and inhale the fumes, get it on  your skin or swallow it. Although probably not if you break just one, according to the National Capital Poison Center.

box of asbestos snow
Circa 1940s asbestos snow (photo from Shield Environmental Services)

And finally, if you have vintage decorations from the 1940s or before and it has fake snow, there is a possibility that fluffy white stuff is asbestos. Hard to imagine, but boxes of asbestos fake snow used to be marketed for it’s lack of flammability. FYI, that snow that wakes Dorothy up in The Wizard of Oz…yeah…asbestos…according to the UK Asbestos Training Association.

If you have one of those flocked 1960s aluminum trees, you can exhale. The flocking is NOT, repeat, NOT asbestos. 

Almost anything can be dangerous if you think too hard about it. I’m generally not an alarmist, but I do take things like electricity and asbestos seriously. We’re not even going into the perils from the various holiday plants that can make you ill, salmonella poisoning from genuine raw egg eggnog, falling off the ladder while stringing lights on your gables, getting caught regifting something that was already regifted to you or having to actually eat a piece of fruitcake. Now get out there an have yourself a merry vintage little Christmas! Those popcorn garlands are not going to string themselves.


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    1. Duly noted. Key word being GOOD. The assumption was made that most of us only have come across HORRIFYING fruit cake and were exposed to it at a time when the Twinkie was our most admired pastry dessert so that we have zero positive memories associated with fruitcake.

    2. Or to elaborate on Laurie’s point about re-gifting….the worst is the fruitcake that’s been re-gifted so often it qualifies as a doorstop.

      My Mom’s bridge group had one that was passed around for over a decade! Obviously, they weren’t dealing with fruitcake that fell into the GOOD category. 🙂

  1. Do you remember putting angel hair on the tree? I think that stuff was made of fiberglass, it itched like crazy when you handled it. Never mind what a hassle it was to remove it!

    1. Oh gosh! I had forgotten all about that angel hair! I remember that vividly now that you mention it. As well as the tinsel mentioned in the post and the (sorry Paul!) the dreaded fruitcake. How fun it all was!

      Merry Vintage Christmas!

  2. Laurie, you’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of fun! Do you remember taking deep sniffs of your doll’s newly minted plastic smell?? I loved that smell because that meant she was brand new! I wonder what that’s done to us? In our house we had all of th aformentioned perils and fortunately went through each Christmas unscathed. Perhaps it’s because Ma prayed every night because she didn’t like electricity or gas stoves. Great posting! We want more!

    1. Mary Ellen, I love the smell of new plastic to this day! Thanks for the buzz kill, I mean insightful, post, Laurie! 🙂

  3. we have always been amazed and admirers of American style for Xmas Tree and Christmas nativityHome decor that we used to see on TV series during the Holidays:) thank you for another interesting article.

  4. Who knew Christmas decorating was so fraught with danger? I think I will stick to collecting Shiny Brite ornaments…oh wait, mercury glass! Great article, Laurie!

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