Safe holiday decorations for the bookstore

Yew looks pretty but is toxic if eaten. Keep it away from kids.

Maybe it’s your first year decorating your brick and mortar, or this year it’s finally YOUR turn to handle the decorating, or with the slow economy, you want to do something really eye-catching. You have such plans!  But first save yourself a lot of headaches by making sure your plans are safe and won’t cause you headaches, literally.  Many popular holiday decorations can be fire hazards, are poisonous to children, or can even induce seizures! Items that are fine in a home setting may be inappropriate in a shop because of the amount of handling they’ll receive, because unsupervised children may get their hands on them, or because you’re a public shop you may have people with special health concerns come in.


I normally go for a natural pine bough wrap around the front banister rather than an artifical one each year since I don’t have to store it and I can compost it to feed my spring flowers.   Live or cut natural materials can be a good choice for decorating, but beware of a few popular items.


Pointsettas are from the same family as latex and can cause allergic reactions in individuals allergic to latex. Skip these if you have employees you know are allergic. They’re also mildly toxic.  It won’t kill someone to eat them, but will irritate the digestive tract of children and animals and may result in vomiting.  Keep them out of reach of children and store pets.  Pointsettas can also stain things red if crushed.


The berries are toxic and can potentially kill children or pets.  Don’t hang it where it can shed berries that kids or animals might eat off the floor.  Real mistletoe is also STICKY and can shed sticky goo on people.  It’s a nice idea, but you’re better off skipping this one.


The pretty red berries and evergreen foliage make for attractive winter shrubs and various yew species are often available in pots from nurseries. They’re more rarely offered as cut greens.  They’re extremely toxic and should not be used in decorating where children can get at them since the berries look delicious.  Pets may also try to eat them.  The berries themselves aren’t toxic, but the seeds are… as is the entire rest of the plant. They can make a lovely landscape plant for the holidays, but keep them OUTSIDE. Winter birds really like them (and can safely eat them), so they do make a nice landscape plant.


This vine is sometimes found in wreaths as it has attractive yellow berries… pretty delicious looking berries that cause kids and animals to vomit if they’re eaten.  Keep them away from children and animals. (Oriental bittersweet is an invasive species in the US, so don’t use it for landscaping either! or compose wreaths with bittersweet after the holidays!)

Aren’t there any holiday plants that won’t kill me?

Evergreens in general

Most evergreens are safe to decorate with, but beware of yew (as mentioned above).  The major problem with cut evergreens is that they dry out and can become a fire hazard.  Run your hands over them sporadically and check to see if its shedding needles.  If it sheds more than one or two when touched, throw them out. (or compost them, even better)

If using a full tree, make sure to cut the base fresh before putting it in the stand, for proper water uptake.   There’s all kinds of things that people put in the water to keep the tree fresh longer, but keep in mind that kids may be able to stick their hands in and it’s very tempting to the store cat or dog.  Don’t put in anything that can hurt them.  (keep in mind if you have a store cat, the tree may also be very tempting to climb! anchor it well!)

“Christmas” cactus

These are nontoxic for kids and pets and generally will happily bloom again for years to come with only minimal care required.  They may, however, not bloom at Christmas again.  They may need some babying to force them to bloom at the proper time.  The light levels here in the Northeast US mean our “Christmas” cactuses from last year normally bloom around Halloween.

Programmable timer
Programmable timer


Many places that sell lights are offering a rebate this year if you bring in a string of old broken lights and buy LED lights instead.  They consume a fraction of the power of traditional lights and are also cold to the touch, so greatly reduce fire hazard.  LEDs also avoids unwarry kids putting their hands on a hot bulb and yelping.  Old lights with electical faults are a major source of fires at Christmas time. Check your cords carefully.  If you’re due to upgrade your lights this year anyway, spring for the LEDs instead.

Also buy an automatic timer for holiday lights.  They cost around $5. Then you simply input when the lights should come on and go off. Turn them off after a certain hour.  They don’t need to be on all night, particularly if you are near a residential area.   Old lights can also be a fire hazard. Leaving the lights on all night contributes to the sky never really getting DARK in most areas.  If you’re in a mixed use area, it can also make it hard for your neighbors to sleep. It can also confuse night flying animals and if you’ve gone really overboard on the lights and may even confuse your landscape plants so they start sprouting out of season!

Use the timer to automatically switch them off after a certain hour to cut fire hazard and cut light pollution.  Make sure to turn lights off completely on Christmas Eve.  Most towns have a  massive problem with light pollution, so the stars are often invisible.  If there’s one night a year kids want to look up at a clear sky filled with stars, Christmas Eve is it. Turning your lights off won’t fix the problem, but it won’t add to it either.



Beware of fragile glass ornaments. Plastic or soft ornaments are probably a better bet near children or where customers can touch them at all.  The silk wrapped balls are a classic and generally safe… but if you have a store cat these can rapidly become a major tripping hazard.  Cats love to knock these down, unravel the thread and bat them around creating a maze of trip wires at ankle height. They’re also eat the thread and then hack it up. Be wary of hanging food items like popcorn strands or candy canes as they may be eaten by children or pets.

Animated items

There’s no end of things that light up, blink, move, sing dance, or otherwise seek to entertain people.  Beware of items that have motion activated components as these may startle customers.  Startling someone using a cane or walker may result in a nasty fall.  As tempting as that motion activated singing Rudolph may be,  skip it.  Your employees will thank you, too.  It gets old REALLY fast.

Also beware of things that blink rapidly or in erratic patterns.  Slowly changing color or slow fading in and out may be beautiful and soothing.  However, rapidly blinking items can trigger migraines or even seizures in some people.  (If you can’t clap as fast as it blinks, it’s probably fast enough to trigger migraines)  Skip these whenever possible.

Tinsel and glitter


I have a shop dog. Dog hair is magically magnetic and will stick to anything. Tinsel will stick to the dog. It will stick to customers. It will stick to children. It will be eaten by children and pets.  It sheds when you look at it hard and you’ll be finding strands of the stuff under bookcases all the way into June.  Those furry tinsel garlands are even worse for shedding.  Glitter has all the same issues, but with the added danger that it can be inhaled. Just say no to tinsel and glitter.  It is pure evil. PRETTY evil, but when you’re still cleaning it up in February, you’ll be wondering why you ever thought it was a good idea.

This all sounds a bit scary but the goal is to have decorations that are safe and require as little maintenance as possible.  You want a chance to enjoy the decorations too! There’s lots and lots of options that are safe and low maintenance.  If you already put up some of these things, you may want to rearrange them a bit to make them safer and keep notes to decide if they’re worth the trouble next year.  One of our cats at home climbed the Christmas tree every year but it never deterred us from having a tree… it just meant it needed to be well anchored.   You may just need to rearrange things a little to make them both enjoyable AND safe.

2 thoughts on “Safe holiday decorations for the bookstore”

  1. I’ll never forget the time I had a cat climb a Christmas tree in our home. Every face in the room, including the cat’s, was ‘ornamented’ with a look of surprise as the tree came toppling over. It was more work cleaning and getting things back in order than it was to originally decorate the tree.

    Thanks Nora – Good posting!

Comments are closed.