A disaster poised to happen. Swirly the cat, belonging to Aletha Wiens of Concord, is fond of climbing the tree.
A disaster poised to happen. Swirly the cat, belonging to Aletha Wiens of Concord, is fond of climbing the tree. (Aletha Wiens)

The stockings may have been hung by the chimney with care, but nobody thought about anchoring the Christmas tree to the wall in case the Wiens' "feline investigation committee" clawed its way to the top, limb by limb by limb by ... timber!

"The impressive thing the year the tree fell over -- oh, the cat was out of sight by the time the tree hit the floor -- was the size of the flood that followed" from the water in the tree stand, says Aletha Wiens, of Concord, recalling the soggy-sweet holiday memory. "Re-wrapping the presents was a chore. Now we tie the tree to a hook in the ceiling."

Yes, with a world full of bad kitties, unstable tree stands, lights that take forever to drape precariously along second-floor eaves and then go dark even though they were all totally working fine when you took them out of the box, holiday decorating is fraught with peril.

So we asked readers and a few folks around the Bay Area to share some holiday havoc and family folklore from Christmases past. Tree incidents seem to top -- or topple, as the case may be -- the list. But a few surprising tidbits turned up too.

For instance, "You'd never expect someone to try to eat your Christmas display," says Barbara Benson, recalling the time someone tried to eat hers.

Run, run, as fast as you can

Barbara and her husband, Skip, live in Alameda on Thompson Avenue, one of those streets where neighbors band together each year and go wacky with holiday spirit. For a few years, the Bensons' main display involved the story of the Gingerbread Man, with a little stove and a fox and the adorably decorated-cookie man (actually plastic foam) running across the lawn.

All was happy in this holiday scene until one day the Bensons stepped outside to find a bite had been taken out of their little ginger guy, a chunk nibbled right out of his upper torso.

"The person must have figured out pretty quick it wasn't really a cookie," Skip Benson says. After a couple more incidents the following year (no more biting, but some downright Grinch-like cookie crumbling), the Bensons switched to snowmen, which have since lived happily ever after on the lawn.

"I guess nobody thinks about eating a snowman," Skip says.

Just down the street, Carl Winterbauer, an electrician known for his festive fleet of glowing pink flamingo reindeer, says he's never had any major disasters, but he averted one once when a TV crew set up across the street for a live broadcast and started to raise the truck's mast -- right into the low-hanging power lines.

"I shouted, 'Stop! Stop!' " he says. "Then I had them park over here in front of my house instead, and I gave them hot chocolate."

O Tannenbaum!

A great save, to be sure. But in the category of herculean holiday rescue efforts, the prize has to go to Sharon Hohmann, of Sunnyvale. In mid-December a few years ago, she was home alone and walking through the family room, admiring the recently decorated 8-foot fir -- carefully adorned with her grandparents' delicate antique glass ornaments. She realized the tree was very, very, ever-so-slowly tipping to one side, so she rushed over and practically threw her body up against the tree to support it.

"I couldn't lay it down on the floor since many of the glass ornaments would have been crushed under the weight," Hohmann says. "I was two rooms from my telephone and couldn't reach any of the chairs that might have helped me support the tree and free me from the terrible pain I got in my back by doing this."

So she stood there. Holding it. For two hours! Finally, her husband came home and helped out. "We now have hooks in all of the ceilings where we place our trees for an additional twine support," she says.

At The Fat Lady Bar & Restaurant in Oakland, co-owner Patricia Rossi is known for her elaborate themes and twists on tradition in the historic Victorian building. This year, it's a spin on "Swan Lake" -- something to do with Santa's alter-ego of Krampus. "We try to be a little more art-forward," she says.

The Christmas tree in Michael Montgomery’s Los Gatos home takes a tumble after his 5-year-old grandson plows a toy motorcycle into it.
The Christmas tree in Michael Montgomery's Los Gatos home takes a tumble after his 5-year-old grandson plows a toy motorcycle into it. (Michael Montgomery)

And this is no small task. They closed for two days and stayed up for nearly 30 hours straight to put up the staff-made props. Has she ever had something go wrong?

"Everything you can imagine," Rossi says. "You get something going perfectly. Then a few days before we're ready to go, the lights blow. Or you're putting up lights and fabric, you stand back and you just hate it, tear it down and have to start over."

Rossi has learned not to string more than five strands of lights together. "And if a strand doesn't work, just throw it away. Don't mess with trying to figure out which bulb is out," she says.

Bah, firebug

For Angela Owen, of Palo Alto, a memorable tree incident was seared into her memory 78 years ago when she was just 7 and her family lived in a small German village. It was a time before electric Christmas lights, and -- unwise as it seems now -- people used real candles on their trees. Owen's family kept buckets of water and sand at the ready, should the tree topple over. And sure enough, it did. On Christmas Eve.

"I remember the 'whoosh' when it fell with its burning candles and tingling ornaments right onto the top of the grand piano and the stack of sheet music, which went up in flames. And I can still see my father grabbing the bucket of water and throwing it onto the fire.

"I don't remember how we managed to have our Christmas dinner that night," she says, "but what I do remember is that we sang carols without my mother playing the piano, which would just blubber."

Less dangerous, but still startling, a huge crash at 2:30 a.m. woke Natalie Krumm's family in San Jose two Christmases ago. They ran out to discover a grisly scene, "a tree corpse lying in a growing pool of water on the hardwood floor," she says. The fate of the unstable tree stand? "No mercy. It couldn't hit the trash can fast enough," Krumm says.

Creatures were stirring

Emily Sparks, of Oakland, tells a creepy tale about her friend who trimmed her tree with cute candy canes, only to be greeted the next morning by ants. Lots of ants. Lots. "Into the kitchen, through the hall and into the living room," she recalls, "trails and trails of them, leading straight to the fabulous Christmas tree. The entire tree was shimmering with the diminutive creatures, up the trunk, out the branches, over and on the ornaments and covering each candy cane.

"There was nothing to do but drag the entire tree outside, ornaments, sugar-happy visitors and all, and say goodbye to it."

And in 2010, when Santa brought Michael Montgomery's 5-year-old grandson a child-size motorcycle and left it under the tree in Montgomery's Los Gatos home, the little boy was thrilled -- but unaware the accelerator was in the handgrips. So when the child got on the bike to pose for a photo ... well, as his grandpa says, "It all happened so fast!

"It actually flew out from underneath him, went through the tree and into a table," Montgomery says. "My grandson still talks about it. This is now one of our favorite Christmas memories."

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.

  • Ladders: To hang decorations on your house, use a ladder extending no more than 3 feet over the roof line or work area. Make sure it's on level, firm ground, with leg levelers if you're on an incline.

  • Before you plug: Read labels on light strands and other electrical decorations to make sure you're conforming to wattage levels. Don't overload circuits by connecting a tangled web of extension cords and power strips.

  • Blowups: Follow the manufacturer's instructions to secure inflatable decorations to the lawn so they don't become dangerous projectiles in the wind.

  • Candles: Keep them away from curtains, bedding, paper and walls. Never leave them burning unattended. And maybe opt for battery-powered "flameless" candles, instead.