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Written by Paul D. Race for and

Click to see new and reissued Lionel trains

What Do Trains Have To Do With Christmas?

When I was growing up in the American midwest in the fifties and sixties, the train around the tree seemed every bit as important to our Christmas celebration as, say, Santa or Christmas stockings. As an adult, I realize that trains and Christmas have "gone together" for generations in most parts of the country. But it wasn't always so, and it some ways, it doesn't even make sense. It's not like Mary and Joseph rode a train from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Nor was Santa ever sighted delivering packages by Railway Express Agency. But to many families today, a toy or model train around the Christmas tree seems as "normal" as a star or angel on the top. As far as I can figure there are at least three reasons for this (in the United States and Canada, anyway - if anyone from other countries wants to contribute to this discussion, I will most gladly include your comments):

  • For over a century, to most Americans, "real trains" exemplified the kinds of "comings and goings," "hustle and bustle," and even package shipments, that increased dramatically during the holiday season. At any time of year, whether you took the "A-Train," or the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," or whether you drifted home on a "Sentimental Journey," you just assumed that any long trip would involve a train. This was even more true at Christmas time. The greatest examples were in the 1940s, when the railroads helped hundreds of thousands of GI's to "Be Home For Christmas" year after year.

    Let's face it, more people and stuff move at Christmas than any other time of year, and for over a century, more people and stuff moved by trains than any other way. So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains.

  • In addition, as the importance of toy and model trains in American culture grew, so did the sense that Christmas was an ideal time both to give and to display those trains. This, in fact, will be the main topic of the following musings.

  • Finally, trains running around Christmas trees bring back memories of simpler times. Christmas trains are to the soul what "comfort food" is to the appetite - a kind of reassurance that there are still good things in the world, and even good experiences in your own past. More will be said on that subject presently.
Antique Push Toy Train

The Rise of Toy Trains

Toy or model trains have been given at Christmas almost since there were trains. At first, these gifts were only toys by anyone' s definition. In the late-19th century, push-toys that looked like trains joined push-toys that looked like wagons or ponies underneath many Christmas trees. Antique Wind-up TrainWind-up toy trains weren't far behind. Still, there seemed to be no particular sense that it was more suitable to give a toy train for Christmas, than, say, for a birthday.

In fact, the most impressive line of "push toy" trains was meant to be used during warm weather. Buddy L* trains were very large stamped-metal push-toy trains for which you could buy track. Buddy L Train Set Yes, these often arrived with the rest of the toys at Christmas, but they were meant to be used outside (as long as you brought them in when you were through playing), so there wasn't necessarily a Christmas link.

The First Powered Toy Trains

The first working model trains were not necessarily "Christmas" trains, or even toys. They were steam-powered models that required a certain amount of skill and patience to operate safely. Sometimes these came into the home at Christmas, but, even if you had a circle of track for it, you wouldn't want to run a locomotive burning real fuel underneath a real cut tree.

In 1901, Lionel showed New York City families that it was possible to fit an electric motor into a toy locomotive and power it by low-voltage electric current. A new industry and a new hobby were born.

Really Big Trains Were the Rule at First

Lionel(tm) Standard Gauge Tinplate locomotiveThe first electric trains were large by today's standards. Most of them were about the size of today's garden trains, although you couldn't use them outside, of course - they were tin-plated steel that would eventually rust under the driest conditions.

These "Standard Gauge" trains ran on track with the rails about 2" apart. Cars seven inches high, five inches wide, and 16" long were common, although some of the cheaper sets used smaller measurements. American Flyer Standard Gauge LocomotiveBut not everyone had room for such a large train. Those trains were also expensive. Some of the early sets cost as much as, say, a contemporary automobile. But as manufacturing techniques improved and "economies of scale" grew, the cost of a good set eventually came down to that of, say, a refrigerator or other major appliance. Still, between 1901 and 1950, a name-brand electric train was a major purchase that needed to be budgeted. And since it was, after all, a toy, what was more natural than giving the most expensive toy you were ever going to buy as a Christmas present? THE Christmas present, in fact. Ives Standard Gauge Tinplate Locomotive - Models of electrics were easier to make than steamers, and they were popular in Northeastern cities where many real electric locomotives operated.

Of course, once the mysterious huge box was opened, it was only logical to route the train around the now-naked-looking Christmas tree.** So between Christmas and the day the tree came down, the train would run almost constantly, with almost everyone in the family taking a turn at operating it. Next year, of course, the train would come out before the presents appeared, and run a week or two before Christmas. And any cars or accessories in the new pile of presents were added to the temporary "railroad" as well.

Christmas Railroads, Train Gardens, and "Putzes" Arrive

Between 1910 and 1960, it became common in some middle-class homes to build elaborate temporary railroads between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of these started as an extension of the Christmas tree route, but some took over spare rooms, back porches, and so on. In Roman Catholic homes, these often started with the Nativity set near or under the tree, then other buildings and accessories, were added, usually with no attention to scale or time period.

In the Baltimore/DC area, these seasonal railroads were called "train gardens;" they had buildings, figures, many accessories, and maybe even multiple trains running at the same time. The train garden tradition became so strong that Baltimore/DC-area fire stations would leave their engines outside until after Christmas and set up large community train gardens in their parking bays. (Note: Several collectors/historians and I have been trying to collect photos of home and fire-house train gardens to post for our readers, with few results. If you have any, please contact us and we'll figure out how to reimburse you for the cost of copying and sending them or whatever - this is an important American Christmas tradition that is on the verge of being forgotten.)

In other parts of the East, the seasonal household railroads and their associated "communities" were called "putzes," from the German word for "put," "set up," or "putter." This is a detail from a photo on collector Ted Althof's site. Track for a Standard Gauge train is in the foreground, the Nativity is in the center right position and a Japanese pasteboard cathedral is at the left. You can also see C6 lightbulbs and 'icicles' made of lead foil. The photo probably dates between 1920 and 1939. Click to see the whole photo. Starting about 1928, putzes all over the country included a new Japanese import - pasteboard houses with celophane windows and a hole in the back for "C6" Christm