#31Days 250Nothing says winter like a crackling fire in the fireplace. If you use your fireplace this season, that cozy blaze will likely be a popular gathering spot for cocoa-drinking kids and visiting friends and family alike. So follow these fireplace safety tips to keep the holiday happy.

Keep it neat and clean. Have your fireplace and chimney cleaned by a professional every year, advises the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA). This person will inspect the flue to make sure it’s clean and free of buildup, says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL. HPBA suggests installing a cap at the top of the chimney to keep out animals or debris that could plug up the chimney or even pull a Santa and fall into the fireplace.

Related: How to Avoid a Chimney Fire

Follow the three feet rule. Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from the fireplace, Drengenberg says. This means furniture, books, wrapped gifts or firewood.

Drengenberg also advises keeping a sturdy screen in front of the fireplace so if an ember jumps out, it won’t start a fire in your living room. (Glass doors serve the same purpose.) Make sure the screen is in good shape. If it tips easily or is broken in a way that stray embers could get through, replace it.

Start slow and keep it low. Never use accelerant liquids to start a fire. Accelerants could cause a fire outside the fireplace, says Drengenberg. Instead, “It is best to use the fire starters that are available today to start a wood fire. They're a mixture of cardboard and wax that heat ups wood so it starts to burn.”

Don’t stoke a fire to the point flames shoot up into the chimney, Drengenberg adds.

Related: Disaster-Proof Your Holiday Decor

Burn only dry, well-aged wood. “Damp wood creates a lot of smoke and is hard to ignite. It also won’t burn as nicely,” Drengenberg says. “The slower wood burns, the more creosote you're going to get.” Creosote is a flammable residue that builds up in chimneys over time. It can ignite and cause a fire.

It may be tempting to burn evergreen branches, but don't. They flare up fast and can throw sparks into your house. For the same reason, never toss gift wrap or newspaper in the fireplace. These also could float to the top of the chimney and get stuck, causing smoke to back up into your house.

Wait until embers cool before cleaning. If they aren't cool, you could start a new fire by supplying them with oxygen. Once the embers have cooled, put them in a metal or ceramic container with a tight lid and store it away from your house and garage.

Watch those stockings. To quote “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” make sure the stockings are hung by the chimney with care! If you've hung your stockings in front of the fireplace, move them when you light a fire.

When decorating your fireplace mantel, keep combustible materials such as greenery or ribbons far enough away so an errant spark can't reach them.

Be fire safe. Install smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide detector 10 feet away from the fireplace, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby, UL says.

Related: Quiz: Are You Prepared for a House Fire?

Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for Boston.com at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.