Scary Stuff: Dangerous Holiday Decorations of Christmases Past

updated Apr 30, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Retro Renovation)

Looking back over decades of holiday decorating, it’s safe to say we’ve done a lot of kooky (alright, downright dangerous) things over the years. Think open flames, mini torches filled with boiling liquid, and lead-based tinsel. Let’s take a nostalgic walk down misguided holiday memories lane, shall we?

Above: An aluminum Christmas tree submitted by a reader at Retro Renovation.

(Image credit: Getty / The Independent)

While most contemporary trees are decorated with electric string lights, this early 1900s image from The Independent reminds us that real candles were the original Christmas lights. Open flames on a slowly-drying wood tree—what could go wrong, right? As the current Scandinavian-style trend brings clip-on candles back into vogue, remember to keep a close eye on these decorations.

(Image credit: Daily Mail)

In the 1940s, fake snow was often made out of asbestos. That’s right, the cancer-causing mineral used for insulation that we now spend big bucks removing from older homes. While these white flakes seemed like a smart snow alternative at the time, the idea of dusting the stuff on an artificial tree now sends a shiver down the spine. If you collect vintage decorations, remember to check them for traces of the stuff.

→ Love retro holiday style? Check out these 10 beautiful white Christmas trees.

After hanging lights and ornaments, draping the Christmas tree branches with long strands of silver tinsel was considered the icing on the cake. Alarmingly, lead was the material of choice for old-school tinsel, because unlike silver, it didn’t tarnish. But by the 1970s, concerns about lead poisoning caused the decoration to be phased out. We’re still all for the Hollywood glam of a tinsel-drenched tree, but we’re opting for those made out of mylar instead. The vintage image above comes from the Merchant General Store.

(Image credit: eBay)

Adorning your tree with mini retro lava lamps may sound intriguing, but in a home with young children, the idea seems misguided. A slightly-safer replacement to real candles, vintage bubble lights contain liquids with low boiling points (such as methylene chloride) that are heated by a bulb, giving them that signature bubbly look. Luckily, these ornaments are only dangerous if broken—the liquid is harmful if swallowed and can be absorbed through the skin. Willing to take your chances? You can still find old packs of Noma brand bubble lights on eBay.

→ Little Known Safety Tips for the Holidays

(Image credit: Johnson County Museum)

On their own, artificial aluminum trees don’t pose any threats, but some early adopters of the all-metal trees were in for a shock when they ignored warnings not to add electric string lights. This shouldn’t stop you from pulling these vintage beauties out of attic, but as far as lighting goes, stick with a rotating color wheel, shown at left in the image above from Johnson County Museum. (Misplaced yours over the years? Buy one for $35 at the Vermont Country Store.)

So, please, avoid sprinkling asbestos around, and be careful with those lit candles. Wishing you a safe and happy holiday season!