OSCEOLA COUNTY - It really is " ... a most wonderful time of the year." Christmas holiday joy. Family gatherings. All great stuff. It is also a time when things can go bad pretty quickly - for any number of reasons. With a little extra care, and a smidge more mindfullness, the winter holiday season can continue to be one filled with happiness and a sense of wonder. Everyone should take a little time to consider the "whats" and "hows" of the holiday, and review the details. It's not hard, and the rewards for using a little common-sense and an extra portion of caution can be great, (even if they are not obvious.) There is an increased danger of fire in homes at this time of year simply because of the extra added accoutrements and the amount of cooking, lighting, and heating that mark the season. The nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers a few suggestions. COOKING Cooking equipment fires are the leading cause of U.S. home fires and fire injuries, and the third leading cause of home fire deaths. Relative to an average day, the number of home cooking equipment fires can be 55 percent higher on Christmas Eve and 68 percent higher on Christmas Day. \u2022 Stay in the kitchen while you're frying, grilling or broiling food. Most cooking fires involve the stovetop. Keep anything that can catch fire away from it, and turn off the stove when you leave the kitchen, even if it's for a short period of time. For homes with children, create a "kid-free zone" of at least three feet around the stove and areas where hot food and drinks are prepared or carried. CHRISTMAS TREES U.S. fire departments annually respond to roughly 260 home structure fires that began with Christmas trees. One third of them are caused by electrical problems, and one in five resulted from a heat source that's too close to the tree. If you have an artificial tree, be sure it's labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire-retardant. If you choose a fresh tree, make sure the green needles don't fall off when touched; before placing it in the stand, cut 1-2" from the base of the trunk. Add water to the tree stand, and be sure to water it daily. Make sure the tree is not blocking an exit, and is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles and heat vents or lights. Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory, and make sure you know whether they are designed for indoor or outdoor use. Never use lit candles to decorate the tree. Read the manufacturer's instructions for the number of LED strands to connect. Always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving the room or going to bed. After Christmas, get rid of the tree. Dried-out trees are a fire hazard and should not be left in the home or garage, or placed outside the home. CANDLES\u00a0 December is the peak month for home candle fires, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day representing two of the five top days for associated fires. NFPA statistics show that more than half of all candle fires start when placing them too close to things that can burn. Consider using flameless candles, which look and smell like real candles. If you do use traditional candles, keep them aleast 12" away from anything that can burn, and remember to blow them out when you leave the room or go to bed. Use candle holders that are sturdy, won't tip over and are placed on uncluttered surfaces. Avoid using candles in the bedroom where two of five U.S. candle fires begin or other areas where people may fall asleep. Never leave a child alone in a room with a burning candle. OK. So we're all safe this year. Now there is a lot of holiday eating to do. So it's "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house." This really is a time of year for folks to drive especially carefully. WINTER DRIVING TIPS Use caution and common sense when driving in the winter. Vehicles cannot stop as fast on icy and snowy roads. Keep a shovel, warm blankets, bags of sand or cat litter in the trunk which can be used in case of emergency. If your vehicle does become stuck and you are unable to free it, run the engine and heater for only short periods of time and with the window partially rolled down. Make sure the end of the exhaust pipe is unobstructed. Stay in your vehicle in case of emergency. Keep the gas tank and windshield washer reservoir full. Make sure wiper blades and snow tires are in good condition prior to the start of the winter season. Clear snow and ice from windows, mirrors, hood, roof, headlights, taillights, and trunk. Use low-beam headlights in snow and fog. When applying the brakes on either snow or ice, avoid locking the brakes. This allows you to maintain steering control of the vehicle while obtaining maximum braking efficiency. On vehicles equipped with anti-lock brakes, do not pump the brake pedal - apply steady pressure. Always wear your safety belt. If you see a large plume of snow or yellow flashing lights, stay back - it is probably a snowplow clearing the road. Keep telephone numbers for local tow service and\/or roadside assistance in case your vehicle becomes disabled or stuck in the snow. Better still, stay and home and be a wonderfully congenial host. Even then there is room to be careful at this time of year. Michigan's Department of Agriculture suggests a few simple food tips to keep people happy and healthy. GENERAL GUIDELINES Start with the basics - always wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before, during, and after handling food. Use separate utensils, cutting boards, and serving dishes for raw and cooked foods; and wash thoroughly with warm, soapy water before re-using. Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. EGGNOG Eggnog is a milk and egg based beverage sometimes made by combining milk, raw eggs, and sugar in a blender; however, MDA does not recommend this practice, as raw eggs may contain Salmonella, which may cause symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms could be serious or life-threatening in young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. While adding alcohol may inhibit bacterial growth, it cannot be relied upon to kill bacteria which may already be in raw eggs. Eggnog made with egg substitutes is safe, since these products have been pasteurized. Other acceptable alternatives include pasteurized liquid eggs in a carton and pasteurized shell eggs. Commercial eggnog is prepared with pasteurized eggs and requires no cooking. Eggnog purchased in a grocery store or prepared at home with pasteurized egg products may still cause illness if left at room temperature for several hours before being consumed; these products should be kept refrigerated. TURKEY PREPARATION Pre-stuffed turkeys should not be thawed before cooking, closely follow package directions. If buying a fresh turkey, be sure to purchase it only one or two days before cooking. After thawing a turkey, keep it refrigerated for only one to two days. For every five pounds of turkey, allow about 24 hours of thawing time in a refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Never defrost food on countertops. Using a meat thermometer, the cooked temperature of the whole turkey should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit. OK. It's kind of a pain worrying about all this stuff. But a little extra care and caution can make your holiday more fun and memorable. Merry Christmas!