Toy Trains and Holiday Nostalgia
- By Jenna Maxwell
Holiday Nostalgia Revisited: What Toy Trains Have To Do With Christmas
Every year at Christmastime, most of us faithfully haul out our Christmas decorations and adorn our homes with all sorts of traditional holiday decor. The centerpiece of most family's holiday decorating is usually a brightly lit and ornamented Christmas tree. For many folks, setting up a Christmas tree is not complete until that old-fashioned toy train has been assembled and set up so that it chugs faithfully around the perimeter of Old Tannenbaum. Why are toy trains so closely associated with many American's vision of Christmas? How did the tradition of encircling your Christmas tree with a clattering locomotive even begin?
In the 1700's, German immigrants brought the concept of the traditional Christmas tree to America. Decorating these evergreen trees had been a custom that had evolved in their homeland of Germany for centuries. Once in America, as time went by, tree decorating as part of Christmas celebrating took on a life of its own. In addition to putting up Christmas trees, German folks also enjoyed setting up small villages or "putzes" that would simulate not only the Nativity, but also their local villages and communities. These "putzes" were commonly set up around the base of the Christmas tree in many Pennsylvania Dutch households. The putz itself contained various figures as well as animals, many of these associated closely with the Nativity. As history goes, these small, simulated villages also came to contain other buildings, figures and vehicles that were also commonplace to the period. Carriages, fire stations, houses, trees, and lanterns were constructed to be part of the putz. These Germanic putzes were the precursors to the popular holiday villages that many folks still enjoy setting up for the holidays in our modern day in age.
By the late 1800's, the railroad had come to America and revolutionized the way people lived forevermore. Because of the railroad, people could now travel farther and in more comfort than they ever could have reasonably done during prior eras. The railroad also made accessing and shipping goods from one place to another much easier. The railroad quickly made America into a world superpower.
The train quickly became a fascinating focal point as well as an integral part of people's everyday lives. It was only a matter of time before the train itself got quickly adapted into the traditional Christmas putz or holiday village setup that was a part of many American households at this point. These early replica villages were likely the first place where the toy train encircled the Christmas tree.
Toy trains became more and more popular with the advent of the railroad. Cast iron was likely used to make the first toy trains that were usually very simple push trains. Later toy trains could wind up and operate. By the turn of the century, Lionel had invented the first electric toy train. The toy train would soon become one of the most coveted toys imaginable.
Early electric toy trains were not exactly inexpensive. Although highly desired and wished for by many children, obtaining an electric train set was not always possible or pragmatic for the average family. In other words, getting a toy train set back in the day often required careful budgeting, and when purchased, the train set would unequivocally be considered a very major toy purchase. For this reason and others, the toy train set became hopelessly intertwined with Christmas, as it was often purchased in conjunction with the most beloved gift-giving day of the year.
When a toy train set was given as a gift to a fortunate child on Christmas Day, you can safely assume that once that large box was hurriedly unwrapped, the next obvious next thing to do was to quickly set the train up. The obvious location to do this was conveniently around the Christmas tree, of course. Because of the popularity of toy trains being given as gifts during this time, when you think of an old-fashioned Christmas, or perhaps even a Christmas from your own childhood, you likely think of a toy train. Trains quickly became a huge part of American culture and a big part of Christmas tradition. When it comes to vintage toys that are closely linked to the Christmas holiday, the toy train reigns supreme.
As the years have moved on, modern technology has taken over to a large extent. The simple toys of yesteryear have now been replaced with video games, computers, televisions, sports equipment and other forms of family entertainment. During the Christmas season, however, there will always be a desire to embrace the nostalgia of long ago and revisit the joys that were part of a much simpler time. Trains will always be a huge part of the sentimental journey that Christmas can take each of us on. Our spirits are easily uplifted by the sound of a chugging choo-choo train running around the tracks with its horn blowing. Memories and Christmas will always go together and for many of us, the simplicity of a toy train will inspire a great deal of wistful reflection.
During the Christmas season, it's not at all uncommon for many communities to sponsor actual train rides that are part of fully lit, decorated, and set up holiday or Santa villages or light displays. Much to the delight of local children, rides to a faux "North Pole" can also be found in some cities that will take them to pay an important visit to Santa Claus. A century old tradition of the train as part of Christmas celebrating is here to stay, as the train it seems, is an important part of Christmas magic. Connecting with your inner child during the holiday season may very well be as simple as setting up a toy train as part of your Christmas decor.
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