The hazards of Christmas are as keenly felt as the joys, though less widely sung. And as the generations roll, there are always plenty of folk on the verge of discovering them.
The first hazard of Christmas is the chimney and things in it, including chimney sweeps. We hired one a few years ago and he dropped a land mine or something down from the roof, breaking the damper. The fix-it man who arrived a few days later said it would cost between $2,000 and $4,000 to set things right. You really don't want to know more about this. Anyway we no longer have a damper.
Worse than chimney sweeps, though less costly, are squirrels, possums, swifts and the panoply of East Coast fauna that like to sit, or sometimes dwell, in the chimney. Before lighting a fire, therefore, I take a half-page of newspaper, no more, and light it, holding it bravely up in the darkness like Prometheus or Miss Liberty for the huddled masses. It makes a little smoke, sufficient to annoy most beasts. If no noise is heard, light a second slightly larger paper, or a branch with damp leaves, and try again. If, after two or three tentative smokeouts you still hear nothing, and if nothing comes barreling down, you may proceed with the fire. Your chimney is biologically safe.
Once the fire is going you encounter the second hazard, smoke in the living room. This is because your chimney is not built right and you are not building the fire right. You simply open the front door, after which you chase the terrier and hope to catch him before he tries to cross 46th Street. Upon your return most of the smoke is gone, and it stays gone as long as the door is open.
Building a fire, in other words, reduces the temperature of the living room 26 degrees.
Now in the Stone Age our cave-person forebears used to light fires to keep saber-toothed tigers at bay. They are the only animals that avoid fire. All horses, dogs, and cats I have known will come right up to a fire. I knew a mastiff once that curled up in the ashes while they were still hot. But most dogs, and all cats, point their heads to the fire and move away when the brains start to bubble. A basset hound, on the other hand, stretches full length parallel to the fireplace and (once euphoria sets in) flicks his tail in, to the rosy coals.
With vigilance we were sometimes able to put out Luke's tail some seconds before he realized (having a superb sense of smell) it was on fire. But of course you can never leave the fire. You cannot help out in the pantry, much as you would like to. The next set of chimney hazards occurs Christmas morning and immediately thereafter. A buddy of mine from Louisiana had a Navy-type father who (and this is a major difference between men and women) could not abide Christmas wrappings all over the place. He bundled them up and stuffed them in the fireplace, producing not only neatness but an appreciative roar in the flue. That roar differs from the roar of a chimney on fire, in that it stops. One Christmas his wife got a froufrou bed jacket which disappeared mysteriously after it was widely admired at the General Opening. He said he did not get it mixed up with the wrappings, but ever after, whenever the chimney made a roar, the whole family would cry, "Bed jacket."
A hazard of our own day is aerosol cans. In general, you think aerosol cans sit on top of the john, and it is hard to say how one ever gets to the living room. I can testify, however, that they can somehow get in Christmas wrappings as easily as a bed jacket. They explode, very like a grenade. Quite small pieces of shrapnel may be retrieved for several days from furniture some feet away from the blast. Why none of us was killed . . . so be warned. Most people have sense enough not to make "snow scenes" on the Christmas dining table. Some, however, do not. As I grew up where cotton is the main business, we had cotton snow down the length of the table, interrupted only twice by candles in tall sticks. Fine. But one year we had iddy-biddy candles shaped like reindeer. You light the antlers. As soon as you do, one falls over and the snow starts to blaze.
"Throw the wine on it," you may cry, flinging your glass. You will discover that every man at the table follows suit. Men love (another major sexual difference) to douse fires. Women, on the other hand, will not only fail to throw champagne on the fire, but will clutch their glasses to their bosoms.
Once a bucket of water from the kitchen is applied, all is well. You then serve the turkey and nobody pays any attention to squoosh noises when a plate is set down. Later you send the tablecloth to St. Louis with a spare napkin and in a couple of months you get it back with the burned holes all fixed. You'd never know. Nor can you see where they took threads out of the napkin. I now do not allow any candle in the house that has antlers.
You may notice that thus far we have dealt only with hazards of fire. It is the devil's way of curing folk of happiness he has not authorized, and he has always had it in for sweet hounds.