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The Smoke Stack

Model Trains: A Perfect Fit for Around the Christmas Tree

Posted on December 21, 2017

By Beth Scanlon

Many families create their own traditions to make Christmas special to them: a specific meal, when to open presents, homemade decorations. There are some customs that are more universal: light displays, Christmas trees, model trains.

Image credit: Flickr, Bob Stovall

But where and when did this tradition begin? Some say the tradition started with the introduction of the first store display of a model train in 1900. Lionel’s first electric train was created not as a toy but for a display at its New York store during Christmastime. Some historians note that when people saw the display, they wanted their own. Lionel began pushing its product distributors to include trains in their Christmas displays. Lionel also showcased its trains at the base of Christmas trees in its holiday advertisements.

Others says that the tradition of trains around the tree started long before Lionel introduced the first electric toy train. Jim Morrison, curator of the National Christmas Museum in Paradise, PA, described the history of nativity scenes in Bethlehem, PA. He noted that over the years nativity scenes in town expanded to look more like villages, with houses in them that reflected their owner’s home. Those displays continued to grow and even included cast-iron carriage and fire station toys in the scenes. Then in 1880 when cast-iron trains were introduced, they too were included in the displays. Then, of course, when electric toy trains started being massed produced, they were incorporated.

No matter the history, there is something incredibly wonderful and nostalgic about getting together as a family and putting the train set together. Nothing compares to waking up on Christmas morning and seeing the joy on everyone’s faces as they watch the train rounding the track under the tree, surrounded by presents that have yet to be opened.

But if you want to experience a real life-size train, visit

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