Why Do People Place Toy Trains Beneath Christmas Trees?

With the holiday season fast approaching, you might find yourself spending more time gazing at the Christmas tree. If there are presents stacked beneath it, it’s a safe bet that there are eager children hoping to discover what’s inside.

For some families, however, there might be more than just gifts beneath the Christmas tree. Alongside a tree skirt and a pile of presents, some families also partake in a long-standing tradition of setting up a toy train beneath the Christmas tree.

Amidst the twinkling lights and amidst the presents, miniature tracks wind in and out, encircling the tree and carrying old-fashioned train cars on an endless loop around its base. So, what exactly do toy trains have to do with Christmas and how did this tradition begin?

Although the exact origins of the tradition of placing toy trains beneath the Christmas tree are unknown, historians believe it dates back at least a century. It likely originated in the early 1900s, around the time when the manufacturer Lionel started producing the first electric toy trains.

Lionel’s electric toy trains quickly gained popularity and sparked a new hobby: model railroads. Since most children were more familiar with trains than cars, toy train sets became a popular request for Christmas presents. Assembling the train set to run beneath the Christmas tree was a natural choice upon receiving it.

For many Americans, toy trains also evoked sentimental feelings similar to other emotions associated with Christmas. Christmas was a time when many people traveled long distances to return home or visit relatives, often by train. Additionally, the nation’s railroads played a crucial role in transporting packages across the country during the holiday season.

Over time, many families expanded their toy train setups year after year. What may have started as a simple circular track around the tree with a few train cars could eventually grow into an intricate layout with multiple tracks and even buildings. Some families even began constructing entire holiday villages beneath their Christmas trees shortly after Thanksgiving.

With the rise of modern technology and electronic gadgets dominating Christmas wish lists, the tradition of toy trains beneath the Christmas tree has become less common. However, in recent years, experts have noticed a renewed interest in this tradition.

Some experts speculate that this resurgence in toy trains may be due to the popularity of modern entertainment that prominently features trains. From Thomas the Tank Engine to the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter books to The Polar Express movie, trains have made a comeback in the public’s imagination. Train enthusiasts hope that this interest will continue to revive the cherished tradition of old-fashioned toy trains beneath the Christmas tree.

Give It a Try

All aboard! Gather a few friends or family members to join you in exploring the following activities:

  • Do you have a toy train set up under your Christmas tree at home? If not, what holiday customs do you follow? Reflect on the holiday atmosphere at your house every year. What would you miss if it wasn’t there? Share your thoughts with your family members. Which holiday traditions are their favorites?
  • Request an adult friend or family member to take you on a visit to a local hobby store to explore their collection of model trains. How many different types of model trains can you discover? Take note of the differences in sizes. Which size do you think would fit best under a Christmas tree? Why?
  • Are there still passenger trains running near your place of residence? Conduct some online research to find out. If you wanted to travel from your hometown to New York City or Los Angeles, how would you choose to travel by train? How much would the fare be? How long would the journey take? Would you be interested in taking such a trip? Why or why not?

References for Further Reading

  • http://www.post-gazette.com/local/south/2012/12/20/The-tradition-of-model-trains-beneath-the-Christmas-tree-may-have-started-in-Pennsylvania/stories/201212200370
  • http://www.bigindoortrains.com/primer/trains_n_christmas/trains_n_christmas.htm

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