“Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.”  Washington Irving

Christmas is also the season for crackling fires in the fire place and carols sung by candlelight.  Unfortunately, Christmas is the season for the rare but devastating church fire, when a church is burned to the ground because of a candle left aflame following a Christmas service. Nothing disturbs a silent night like the sirens of fire trucks responding to a three-alarm fire.

Improbable but not impossible

In the United States alone, there are over 1600 religious property fires every year.  While candles only start about 4% of these fires (most are started by cooking equipment, heating equipment, or other electrical equipment), that still accounts for about 70 fires on religious properties each year with candles as the ignition source.  The winter holiday season is the time when candles are used the most.

The hazard is worse because of the increased number of visitors and guests at religious services during the winter holiday season.  Temporary seating may be set up, blocking means of egress that are normally quite accessible.  Because visitors and guest typically don’t know where all the exits are, they are more likely to become disoriented in an emergency.

Undoubtedly, there will be ushers and church elders who will insist that they’ve been doing this for umpteen decades and have never seen a fire started by a candle.  They will be right. With about 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, the probability of a candle setting a religious property on fire in any given year is about 1 in 5000.   But improbable does not mean impossible, and the possibility of a candle starting a fire is an easy one to do something about.

Worship Leader as Safety Chief

When there is going to be a special use of candles as part of the liturgy, such as an Advent wreath or handheld candles, or as decoration, there are heightened opportunities for problems.  The worship leader will have great influence in the placement of fixed candles and in caring for the congregation in an emergency.

It is importance to keep combustible materials away from candles, including candles that fall over.  Combustible materials can include greenery or ribbons that some will want to place around the candles, or straw in a manger.  It can also include carpeting or upholstery on a pew.

Before the service begins, it will be the worship leader who announces the exit routes from the sanctuary and who quickly reviews candle safety prior to those services where candles will be hand held.  It is important that the worship leader be committed to the idea that if there is an emergency, it is not a case of “the show must go on.”  In an emergency, the service should stop, any dimmed lights come up, and the worship leader direct an orderly evacuation from the pulpit or lectern.

Fire extinguishers

It should go without saying that fire extinguishers, even fire extinguishers in a house of worship, should be inspected monthly and subject to an annual maintenance check.  Sometimes, especially in smaller congregations, this gets overlooked.  If they are not up-to-date, getting them up-to-date must be a priority.  Christmas Eve is not a good time.  A week or two before the special holiday services is a much better time to check to make sure that the fire extinguishers are current.

Having functioning fire extinguishers is necessary, but not sufficient.  The ushers should also know how to use them. Most people have never used a fire extinguisher and during a fire is a terrible time to try to figure it out.  When possible, I try to meet with the ushers before the holiday services begin, but there are years when it comes down to meeting with the ushers just prior to each service.  In addition to knowing how to use fire extinguishers, I make sure they know where each fire extinguisher in the building is.  It is during this meeting that we also discuss and review the action plan for any kind of emergency that occurs during a special holiday service.

Exit routes

Exit routes should also be functioning. This includes the way to exits, the exits themselves, and the discharge from the exits. They may be perfectly adequate during most of the year, but the winter holidays bring special opportunities for problems.

The routes to the exits must be unobstructed.  Props from the children’s program should not be stashed in a hallway, blocking an exit door.  While it may upset the decorations committee, that garlands and ornaments should not be hanging from exit signs, obscuring them.

The exits themselves should all work.  Some doors go unused for months on end and can become stiff or inoperable.  Right or wrong, some get locked.  It’s important that every door marked as an exit work.

Finally, there are the discharges from the exits.  There should not be a wheelbarrow or hose reel from the properties committee parked in front of one of the doors, making it impossible to open.  Because it’s winter, there should be special care that snow or ice don’t make the way impassible.

Candle Use

When members of the congregation are going to be holding candles, the practice is typically to light a few candles near the front of the sanctuary, then for individuals to light their candle from the flame of a neighbor’s candle.  The correct way to do this is for the person with the lit candle to hold it upright, and for the unlit candle to be tipped to it.  This keeps the lit candle from dripping hot wax.  At the very least, this avoids the mess of dripped wax.  More importantly, it avoids burning someone and causing them to drop their lit candle, igniting a bigger fire.

Once candles are lit, it is important to keep them upright, again to avoid dripping wax.  It is also important to keep them away from anything flammable:  bulletins, music, scarfs, coats, long hair, etc.

Most importantly, for candles that are not held by people in the pews but are fixed in place:  they should never, never, never be left to burn unattended.  It doesn’t matter how nice they look.

Offer to help

I like the way the sanctuary looks at the church I attend when the lights are dimmed and the room is illuminated almost exclusively by candlelight.  I especially love it when the gathered congregation, members and their visiting friends and families, light handheld candles as they sing carols.  It is one of my favorite things and I wouldn’t deny it to anyone who wanted it.  But I would hate to see anyone hurt or property lost because of it.

Many of the safety professionals with whom I work feel the same.  So, I encourage anyone who will be part of holiday services to make it a point to work with the stewards of your church to assure that the use of candles is safe.

If you are a member of a congregation that will be using candles in special holiday services, take these four steps:

  1. Talk to your worship leader, sooner rather than later. Make sure candles are placed and used safely and that your worship leader is prepared to make an announcement prior to services where candles will be used by congregants and during services if there is an emergency.
  2. Make sure there are fire extinguishers that are ready to be used and that the ushers are ready to use them.
  3. Just prior to special holiday services, make sure the exit routes are unobstructed and passible.
  4. Following the service, take a quick look to see that all candles are extinguished.

May Christmas Eve truly be a silent night.  Enjoy the holidays!



  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.