What? Cancel Christmas?

What? Cancel Christmas?

by MBN | 23 Dec 2014
Bah humbug! In December 1908, the insurance industry declared war on Christmas.

In that year, the New York Board of Underwriters issued an announcement to every client of every fire-insurance firm in the Big, Burning Apple:

“Your attention is hereby respectfully called to the fact that the introduction about the premises of Christmas green, harvest specimens and other inflammable materials, such as cotton, to represent snow, and the like, and the use of moving picture machines, introduces additional hazard not contemplated by the underwriters in issuing policies of indemnity covering the usual fire hazard.”

Unfortunately, so many disastrous fires had occurred as a result of Christmas decorations – not only in retail stores where festive spectacles were common, but also in houses, churches and public buildings – that “the practical prohibition of this class of display is deemed necessary.”

So, what about department store windows, resplendent with the illuminated joy of the holidays?


Surely church transepts could swell with Scotch pine and Douglas fir?


How about decking the halls with boughs of holly?

Forbidden – so long as the decorators wished to keep their insurance coverage viable, that is.

The insurers weren’t taking a page from Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Until the age of electricity, Americans lit up their Christmas trees using candles or burning paper (yes, burning paper).  Fires had become so common that newspapers would mark the season’s first fire with the same regularity that the first snow fall would be recorded.

Christmas had become a nightmare for insurers.

At the turn of the previous century, insurers experienced a yearly post-holiday rush of claims from homeowners and business owners who had been burned by yuletide blazes. Although many of the losses were small, they did add up – and had a serious impact on insurers’ bottom lines.

And some fires hit very close to home for insurers.

In 1900, an unfortunate insurance executive, F. W. S. Brookes of the Prudential Insurance Co., suffered serious burns while playing Santa Claus for a group of eager children. As Brookes reached for presents in the tree’s high branches, his Santa suit caught fire, and he was engulfed in flames until his guests smothered the blaze.

Although Santa was singed, Brookes considered himself lucky. News accounts from the period are full of fatalities caused by Christmas tree fires.

Strands of electric lights, first invented in 1882 by Edward H. Johnson, an assistant of Thomas Edison’s, offered a festive alternative. But such decorations were initially very expensive, and required professional workmen to install. Moreover, electric lighting was still an imperfect technology, and often proved to be no safer than the open flame lighting they replaced.

A year after their first pronouncement, the New York underwriters added “electric lights” to their list of banned decorations.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that reliable Christmas tree lights perfected and mass-marketed. But Christmas tree fires remained common.

Chicago still suffered between 15 and 30 such blazes per year through the 1930s, while Christmas crooner Bing Crosby’s North Hollywood mansion was consumed by flames after a string of lights short-circuited in 1943.

But don’t worry – Crosby’s wish for a White Christmas were made true by insurers, as the majority of his $200,000 loss was covered.

Luckily for Crosby, by then the underwriters had started to relent. Most of his $200,000 loss was covered by insurance, a spokesman said.


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