This time of year in my childhood, one would find the corners of living rooms or even entire rooms transformed. Pieces of furniture were pushed aside or exiled to the cellar, replaced by a miniature village, complete with houses, stores, street lights and fake snow. Encircling, or winding through, the settlement a three-rail metal track threaded its way, bearing a Lionel model train.
In our home, a light blue passenger train, a rarity, made its way around an oval that embraced our decorated Christmas tree. We operated the train with a recalcitrant little black box, an off-on electrical transformer. Inside the loop lay our modest village that included five or six tiny houses, a bank, a church, some street lights, a few miniature people, and one tunnel, painted green, made of fiberboard.
We called these villages Christmas gardens, and in our neighbors’ homes, many of them grew to fill more than just a corner; some took up an entire room. A Christmas garden built on multiple plywood platforms, sporting two or three separate freight trains, all running at once, filled a spare bedroom in the home of a family in our church.
Owners of these setups proudly invited friends to drop by to see their handiwork and marvel at some of the features that included automatic railroad crossing gates that rose and lights that flashed when a train approached. A special white pill dropped into a smokestack enabled locomotives to puff white smoke.
Like the trees, these displays often remained up long after Christmas had passed and the children had returned to school. We hated to see them go. Model trains don’t encircle Christmas trees any longer. Many years have passed since I last saw one. And model trains for a long time have been the province of the serious hobbyist who prefers the the smaller HO gauge size, which look more authentic and ride on twin tracks like real railroads.
Such customs change with the passage of time, but the true spirit of Christmas remains.