by Charlie Burn
Embark on a journey to the late 90s with a Christmas tale that ignited more than just holiday spirit. Join us as I recount a disastrous yuletide, where Christmas traditions took an unexpected turn – involving a real Christmas tree, burning candles, and an unforeseen fire that marked a festive season like no other.
What follows is a true story, a Christmas remembered for all the wrong reasons. Spending the holiday with my boyfriend, his younger siblings and their recently separated Dad who was hosting Christmas for the first time, added an unexpected twist to the season. The atmosphere was charged with the challenge of a single dad navigating the festive terrain and my own uncertainty in an unfamiliar place, following someone else’s traditions.
Picture a cosy living room adorned with a fat Christmas tree, exuding the scent of fresh pine. Intrigued, I couldn’t resist touching the tree adorned with real candles.
“You don’t really light them, though, do you? Are they just for decoration?” I asked.
“Oh no, we’ll definitely light them. It’s a Christmas tradition in our house. We sing songs around the Christmas tree. You’ll love it. In fact, let’s light them now.” My boyfriend Oscar* took out his lighter.
I noticed that some of the candles had a branch directly above them. “It won’t burn the tree, will it?”
“No, don’t worry.” He soothed. “It’ll be fine. We always do this.”
Little did I know, my curiosity would spark a moment that would make this Christmas unforgettable. I was soon to get a fiery surprise, one that caught us all off guard.
*not his real name
As the candles were lit, the festive mood turned fiery when the Christmas tree started smoking and eventually caught fire. “The tree’s starting to burn!!” “Blow out the candles! Grab an old tea towel and get it wet!” I shouted, not wanting to use his Dad’s best tea towels. “Hurry!” Panic ensued, but we managed to extinguish the flames, leaving us with a chilly, but relieved atmosphere. It was a definite icebreaker and I felt a bit easier, thinking the worst was behind us.
Strangely, this musical family skipped the usual singing around the Christmas tree that night. The next morning revealed a different kind of discord. There was breakfast for us all: scrambled eggs, croissants and orange juice. Oscar’s little sister refused to come down at first. She said she felt unwell.
“Just a little?” we coaxed. “You might feel better.” She wasn’t keen, but managed a tiny bite, then rushed upstairs, with her hand covering her mouth. Oscar promised to bring her some water and check on her.
“She’s vomiting and she’s starting to burn up,” he reported.
Jenny did not show up at all for the Christmas meal. I could sense the disappointment. Despite their dad’s efforts to make this Christmas special, unexpected challenges continued to unfold.
*not her real name
They say bad things happen in threes. The first hint that something else had gone wrong was after the Christmas meal when a strange burning smell lingered .
“Can you smell that?” I asked.
“Smell what?” Oscar said.
“Something burning. I don’t know if it is just the smell from the fire yesterday. I thought we got rid of that when we opened all the windows.”
Suddenly, Oscar ran towards the kitchen. “The Christmas pudding!” he shouted.
He threw open the kitchen door and thick, grey smoke lingered around the top of doorframe. The whole kitchen was filled with thick, grey smoke. Oscar opened the front door wide to help the smoke clear. He was coughing and spluttering a lot. His eyes streamed, bloodshot. He took lungfuls of clean, cold air and seemed to be struggling to breathe. Neighbours enquired if we were okay. “We’re fine” declared Oscar, in between coughs.
In case you were wondering: the water for steaming the Christmas pudding had dried out. The melted plastic was burning.
The kitchen mishap added another layer to the chaos. Thick, grey smoke filled the room, but we managed to clear it. There was a decidedly cold temperature in the house. I couldn’t believe what had happened.
Thankfully, the mishaps seemed to end there. However, three days later, an unexpected present from Christmas arrived – my first-ever projectile vomiting. I discovered that it came with such force that it was hard to aim it in the toilet. The bath was thankfully a larger target. Even after the flames of disaster were extinguished, the memory continued to burn bright. It really was a Christmas like no other.
Now, married to a firefighter, I reflect on that Christmas and whether there could have been any other outcomes – better, worse? What do you think? I hope you have enjoyed hearing about the chaos of a Christmas gone awry and lessons learned amidst the flames, smoke and vomit.