Call it a holiday tree or call it a Christmas tree. Either way, that thing is potentially lethal.
And expensive, too. Last year, given the choice between an $80 local tree and a $40 one from Lowe’s, I chose the economy version. Within a week it was as dry as a piece of pasta. I prayed to the fire gods that I could make it through Christmas day without calling 911.
And therein lies a great Park Slope tale (albeit one from 1914).
Mrs. Beguelin, who lived on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Berkeley Place, picked the wrong day for a play date. Her little 5-year-old daughter, Virginia, invited 3-year-old Gregory Price (who lived right next door to what became Ozzie’s on Seventh Avenue) to come and play. His governess brought him over, and Mrs. Beguelin promptly sent the kids and Mary Hammond, “a negro girl in her employ,” according to the New York Times, to the first-floor library so she could have some time to herself upstairs.
Naturally the kids wanted to see the Christmas tree all lit up, so Mary plugged it in — which in 1914, meant she lit all the wax candles on the tree. Within moments the whole thing burst into flames. In a panic, everyone ran upstairs to the second floor.
They all survived the experience — but it was quite a show. The two kids were dropped out of the second-floor bay window into the outstretched overcoats of passersby. But what to do with the three adults?
Pedestrian John Lilly, of 943 President St., found a ladder from a nearby neighbor. Unfortunately the darned thing was too short to reach to the top. So he and a couple of other guys held it up over their heads and instructed the women to climb down. Any guesses as to who got to be the guinea pig?
Poor Mary Hammond made it about halfway down before the ladder swayed and she fell to the sidewalk, breaking her hip. Mrs. Beguelin went next and fared better (the guys figured out what they had done wrong with Mary).
At that point the Fire Department showed up and Captain James Walsh of Engine Company 269 put the ladder flat against the wall, climbed up it and instructed the governess to lower herself from the window. As she slid past him, he grabbed her ankles with all his strength and held her dangling upside down from the top of the ladder. Undignified, to say the least, but at least she made it.
Fortunately they all made it, even Mary Hammond, albeit burned and with broken bones.
Today, Park Slope has very few Christmas tree accidents, according to the firefighters at Ladder 122 on 11th Street. But they do happen — and they are life-changing.
“You go to one Christmas tree fire and you’ll be using artificial trees for the rest of your life,” one of the firefighters told me. Another firefighter from Squad 1 told me that if a tree catches fire, the whole apartment is gone, too.
The Fire Department says you should look for a tree that has soft, pliable needles. Never use lights that are damaged, and keep space heaters far away from the tree. Don’t run extension cords under the carpet.
So, score another point for buying local. This year, I’m going to bite the money bullet and get a nice tree from the people who bring evergreens fresh from Vermont on Union Street, or the Canadians on Flatbush Avenue.
I’ll save the fireworks for New Year’s Eve.
Wendy Ponte is a writer who lives in Park Slope.
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