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From the archives: A most surprising Christmas tree accident

Bing Crosby had good reason to dream of a white Christmas – he was lucky not to lose his family in a fire caused by Christmas lights at his home in 1943.

Image: AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian

NO WONDER CROONER Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas. The original caption on the photograph above reveals a surprising anecdote: that Crosby’s house once went up in flames in an accident which somehow happened “when the singer’s wife was dismantling the Christmas tree”.

It might sound odd – and it did, until we found an account of how the accident happened. The Bing Crosby official website records that:

Tragedy was averted in 1943 when Dixie and the boys emerged unscathed after a Christmas tree fire destroyed the Crosby estate at Toluca Lake.

A more comprehensive telling of the story appears on this architectural blog, Paradise Leased. By 3 January, when the accident happened, the tree was well dried out. As Dixie, Crosby’s then wife, unwound the fairy lights from the tree, they sparked and the dry tree acted as willing kindling. Citing contemporaneous press reports, the blog notes that the fire quickly licked throughout the wooden colonial-style decor of the home and that Dixie and the Crosby children and their nanny just made it out with their lives:

The following day, photographers snapped poignant pictures of Crosby and his wife solemnly walking through the smouldering ruins looking for anything that could be salvaged. Damage was estimated at $200,000 and while most all of it would be covered by the enormously wealthy star’s insurance, no amount of money could replace the priceless memorabilia Crosby had collected through his decades of success including a complete collection of his phonographic recordings, awards, trophies, his huge pipe collection as well as family and professional photographs.

While Christmas tree lights undergo a great deal more safety testing these days, the story serves as a timely reminder to turn out those lights tonight and keep the tree well away from candles, fires and other open flames. If it can happen to Bing ‘Christmas’ Crosby…

Have a safe Christmas, everyone.

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