Remembering our Lionel oval

You will discover a fascinating variety of Christmas holiday customs if you visit America’s cities in December. Foods that originated among ethnic settlers in neighborhoods will spread citywide in time. In my hometown of Baltimore, such treats abounded, but Christmas gardens became the enormously popular, too, in a period including my 1940s childhood.

These so-called gardens were more about trains than flowers.

Baltimore’s love affair with railroads and their trains hails back to the years before the Civil War and grew to become a dominant force in the city’s life for a century. Baltimore became home to more railroads than you can count, ranging from the mighty Baltimore & Ohio, born in 1827, died in 1987, to such smaller lines as the Annapolis & Elk Ridge, and the Baltimore & Port Deposit. The Pennsylvania, B&O’s main competitor, started in 1876 and survived until 1968. Trains were the way we traveled and moved freight. Railroads provided employment for thousands of Baltimoreans.

In 1900, a young New York-based inventor named Joshua Lionel Cowen founded a toy train company to which he gave his middle name Lionel. Americans were captivated by the railroads in those days and awed by electricity, still a rarity in many homes. He capitalized on this. By 1903, Lionel’s toy trains and their three-rail track layouts appeared in America’s living rooms in large numbers, especially at Christmas. This was a natural for Baltimore, a railroad town if ever there was one.

An oval track four feet long embraced our living room Christmas tree. Our modest Lionel train set included a miniature steam locomotive, a caboose, and four light blue passenger cars, a rarity. Most sets featured freight cars. Inside the oval we placed several tiny buildings, and a papier-mache tunnel, painted to resemble one made of stone, sat over the tracks at one point.

Our tiny village couldn’t compare to the more elaborate layouts created by some of our neighbors and friends, many of whose Christmas gardens featured two or three platform levels and multiple trains. These remained up for weeks. Setting them up often took many hours of labor, and their owners loved to show them off to their many admiring visitors.

I felt sad when the holidays ended and we packed up our trains and villages for the year. Our humble Christmas garden still shines among my favorite memories of Christmas, though, and always will. As for why we used the term Christmas garden to describe our little villages and their Lionel trains, I never could get a logical explanation from anyone.

I guess that’s simply a Baltimore custom, and I love it. What is your favorite Christmas memory?

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