Christmas is a time of year when we deliberately increase the fire loading in our living rooms.  Many people use a natural solution comprising a tree with many finely divided combustible components (such as needles – more on them below).  A bonfire is then built underneath it, sometimes incorporating containers of malt flammable liquids (at least that’s what I like to do given the chance).  Prepared at a later date than the tree, this paper wrapped this heap may inadvertently cover the transformer for the electrical ignition sources distributed across the tree.  If the tree is not watered – tricky with the electrical hazards present – it will slowly dry out and become more readily ignitable.

What could possibly go wrong?  Well, normally not more than the knowledge based error of finding out your present selections could have been better.  But if ignition does occur, the ensuring conflagration can be spectacular as shown in this footage from the BRE Group: Christmas Tree Fire.  It’s rather more intense than the bin in the corner simulation normally used for fire testing purposes.

Thankfully, neither I or any of my Hastam colleagues have experienced this scale of calamity at Christmas.  One year, to give everyone a break from the pressures of cooking and cleaning up, Tony had pre-booked a posh Christmas dinner, paid in advance and non-refundable.  Unfortunately two members of the family were struck down with norovirus shortly before the big day.  Sensibly deciding not to share their virus with other Christmas diners, dinner became beans on toast whilst waiting for symptoms to develop.

Liz seems to have had trouble with turkeys, once infusing one with plastic fumes by forgetting to remove the bag of giblets.  Unfortunately it was the first Christmas she cooked for her new in-laws.  On another occasion, having roasted the turkey breast side down to keep it moist it needed rotating before carving.  This is a tricky manoeuvre with a large hot bird and a pair of carving forks.  It slipped and skidded across the floor in front of her husband’s brother just as he walked into the kitchen.

One Christmas my mother put the dinner plates out with the normal warning that ‘they are a bit hot’.  Quite how hot was revealed when pouring gravy over the meat and veg.  It started boiling again!  Clearing the table revealed the plastic Christmas table cloth had melted into a white linen one underneath.  Thankfully the table was protected by a heat mat.  The cause?  An error of omission.  After taking the turkey out to rest, she popped the plates in to warm but forgot to turn the heat down.

The specialist in near death Christmas experiences appears to be Richard.  It’s amazing he survived his childhood!  Here are two of his stories from Christmases past in his own words.

Christmas 1952

I was brought up in a posh middle class family.  This Christmas disaster is as much about social norms and stiff upper lips as the bad events themselves.

We had a live-in servant, ‘Mrs’ Smith who had arrived shortly before the holiday.  Servants were difficult to find – indeed it was my Mother’s main topic of conversation with her friends – after the iniquities of rationing had been exhausted.

On Christmas Day we sat down to dinner in the evening.  It would have been better to have chosen lunchtime.  For Mrs Smith evidently found the challenge of cooking a turkey for our extended family an ordeal requiring medicinal comforts.  Before the soup arrived muffled crashing sounds from the kitchen suggested an over-dose.  She arrived with the soup with her psycho motor skills evidently impaired.  Two bowls were despatched to the floor and I was served a half-empty bowl – the rest flooding the table cloth.  Not a word was said by any of the fine company.

Later, it was not the turkey that was the problem – rather the Brussels sprouts.  The vegetable garden (the preserve of Mr Berry, the gardener) was surrounded by pine trees.  Mrs Smith, perhaps thinking that pine needles were an essential nutritional supplement, had omitted to remove the needles.  We crunched away.  I drew attention to the needles but received a sharp pinch under the table.

What then are the morals of the story?  First, sadly, Mrs Smith departed in disgrace a week later.  More importantly all my family were prepared to eat potentially toxic (and sharp, like fish bones) pine needles without demur to avoid a ‘scene’.  My parents were the last generation who thought that maintaining a stiff upper lip was preferable to the possibility of being poisoned.

Christmas 1951 – a disaster averted on Crib Goch

I, aged eight, and my sister aged 13, with my Father, an intrepid mountaineer who knew no fear, climbed Crib Goch in Snowdonia on Boxing Day.  I was wearing short trousers and school shoes.  It was a 60° ice-covered assault to the ridge in a blizzard with zero visibility except for the lightning.  The steps in the ice my Father cut with his ice axe were too far apart and I had to use my bare knees to reach the next step.

“Much has been written about Crib Goch. On a bad day it can be lethal especially in high winds or under snow and ice. ….”  http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walks/walks/walk_b/3036

When I read this recently, I thought, only ‘lethal’! Then I realized the context: the comment was about ‘walking’ along the ridge not going straight up!

This was not then seen as folly.  We were roped up after all.  Perceptions of risk change.  In 2017, even if nothing untoward had happened, my Father might have faced a custodial sentence.  And this is right – the issue now, and perhaps then, was that his precautions were inadequate, and it was not a suitable day for climbing.  And he chose the most hazardous route.  But did I complain?  No, of course not.  It was simply ‘not done’.

And on that note, the Hastam team wish you the very best for a calamity free Christmas break.  We look forward to working with you in the New Year.

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