How To Timeless Classics Behind the Christmas tree train set tradition

Behind the Christmas tree train set tradition

By Nastassia Putz | December 18, 2023

| Last updated on January 15, 2024

From miniature Nativity scenes to electric train sets looping around a fir

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Christmas tree train set

sepia picture of kids around a tree playing with toy train set
Classic Toy Trains collection

The history of the “putzen”

In as early as the 18th century, Protestants immigrating to America were making miniature Nativity scenes in their homes around Christmastime. The Moravians, who at the time settled in the Lehigh Valley (eastern Pennsylvania), are recognized for consistently doing this activity. The term “putzen” is a German word that has slightly different interpretations. Essentially, it means “decoration.” The Putz building tradition performed by the Moravians (The Moravian Putz) continues to this day and can be more than just a simple Nativity scene — it can be an intricate Christmas village layout that shares the story of Jesus (prominently displayed for all to witness).

Commonly decorating under one’s tree likely began as an offshoot to this. Eventually, it evolved into train sets under trees — or more in-depth Christmas-themed toy train layouts — used by people of all different faiths and backgrounds.

Prototype trains to model toy trains

In the 1900s, railroads became an important part of life. Raw materials, goods, and people moving by trains were vital to the economy. Companies like Ives Manufacturing Company, Lionel, and American Flyer began making model trains at the same time. A toy train set, especially an electric train set, became a prized possession for a family, one that was both a financial investment and a treasured keepsake to pass down to future generations.

Following WWII, trains were everywhere. The ebb and flow of manufacturers, the variety of scale sizes, the price point, and perhaps the trains’ nostalgic value and association to childhood memories would continue to play a role in the ongoing presence of these sets year after year. Even with a decline in the use of actual railroads and trains, model train sets under trees continued to thrive well into the 21st century. Common manufacturers (to list just a few) were/are:

  • Hornby
  • Bachmann
  • Lionel
  • American Flyer
  • Marklin — noted to be the first creator of the train set (non-electrical) in the 1890s
  • LGB
  • Marx
  • And many more.

Christmas tree train sets have generational appeal

little boy by train set
Chris Montagna

Many factors play a role here. In the 1900s, you had to have money in order to own one of the fancier, electric train sets, thus giving you and your family the appearance of wealth and prestige. It wasn’t just a mere toy, but an ideal life for some. Overtime, these train sets became nostalgic and captivating to people by stirring up fond childhood memories.

Today, there are so many different toy train set options out there and many of the popular ones have become widely known through media. Book or movie-related trains like the Polar Express, Hogwarts Express, Thomas & Friends, etc. Then there are holiday-themed trains like the North Pole Central, or ones based on a specific type of locomotive like the Santa Fe. It’s your tree, you pick the putzen.

Classic Toy Train Contributing Editor Bob Keller received his first train set in 1955 — it was a gift from his uncle the year he was born. Bob’s uncle — just out of the service at the time — began working at a store that sold trains at Christmas.

“It started out as just another toy, but as years passed, it became a part of the holiday decoration routine. Buy the tree, decorate it, and then set up the railroad.” says Bob.

According to Bob, it was a Lionel No. 1000W set with a No. 2016 steam locomotive and whistle tender, a gondola, Baby Ruth boxcar, a caboose, track, and a No. 1033 transformer. “He added another piece of equipment such as switches, an engine, a water tower, or another operating accessory every year until the company stopped selling Lionel in the mid-1960s.”

Since the 1990s, Bob has kept his trains from under his tree. This is because, unlike when he was a child, he has had dogs that view chasing the train under the tree as a great holiday pastime. “Nosing the engine off the track — even off a slightly elevated platform — became their Christmas fun, so the gear was limited to my layout.”

If Bob lives to be 100, his original Christmas trains will be the last trains he’ll have. “A holiday train evokes memories of past fun and good memories of family members long departed! It also reminds me of how much of the real world you were protected from!”

Classic Toy Train Contributing Editor Chris Montagna was 5-years-old when his family began putting a toy train set under their tree. It was a Lionel Reading 4-6-2, given to him by his grandfather.

“This engine currently sits on a shelf in my home office. It has a lot of sentimental value to me, not just about the hobby but because it was given to me by my grandfather,” says Chris. Today, his children enjoy a Lionel Santa Fe Super Chief set annually around their tree. “My kids love the train. A Christmas tree isn’t complete without a train running under it.”

Keeping tradition alive

screenshot of Christmas article

So if you’re looking to start a Christmas tree train set tradition for your family, there are many to choose from. Below are several links to get you started. Happy holidays!

More resources:

Check out “Five mind-blowing facts about Christmas and trains.”

To read a more in-depth history on Christmas tree train sets and more, order the “Christmas & Electric Trains” special issue.

What was your first Christmas tree train set? Post a comment or picture below.

2 thoughts on “Behind the Christmas tree train set tradition

  1. My first electric train to run around our tree was an American Flyer steamer which Santa brought in 1957. I was eight years old. I thought he may have stopped at the JC Penney store before coming to my house since it was exactly the one I wanted which I saw in the store. I still have it but it refuses to run properly even after I had it repaired.

  2. My first train set was am HO Tyco CN F7 freight set in 1972 or something. My sisters are much older than I am, having been born in Scotland while I was born in Canada (hence the CN set), so I went over to my sister’s for lunch on Christmas eve and when we came back my father and brother-in-law had set-up a figure-8 layout on a board in front of the tree. I till remember my stunned reaction lol. That’s what got the whole wheelset rolling as it were. Used to love watching the train lights run in the dark with in front of the tree. Still do! And F7s are still my favourite locomotives. Got ’em in every scale!

You must login to submit a comment