- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Michael Kernbauch couldn’t imagine putting up a Christmas tree without displaying a toy train beneath it. As a father of three children, Mr. Kernbauch, 49, carries on the tradition that he experienced in his youth.

This year, his tannenbaum stands in the family room of his Clifton home with a LGB locomotive leading the cars on the train track. The locomotive sounds a whistle and gives off a pine scent.

“Toy trains are something that carry you back to a less stressful time, to the holiday you faced as a child,” Mr. Kernbauch says. “If you are 9 years old, your world is a Christmas tree and a train.”

Along with mistletoe and manger scenes, Christmas trees accompanied by toy trains are popular symbols of the winter holidays. The possibilities of decorating with the miniature cars are as big as a person’s pocketbook.

Oral tradition says that the “train gardens” began in Maryland in the 1900s, says Ed Williams, deputy director and chief curator at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore.

“It’s mostly in the Maryland region that they are called ‘train gardens,’ ” Mr. Williams says. “Some people expect to see flowers and bushes, but it’s trees and trains.”

When settlers came to America, a large group of German immigrants made their homes in Maryland, Mr. Williams says. During Christmas, the German natives would build little houses to replicate the villages from which they came in Europe. These communities would be placed under their Christmas trees.

According to legend, decorating trees is a German tradition started by Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. He supposedly placed candles on the branches of evergreens, as a symbol of Christ, “the light of the world,” Mr. Williams says.

Trains had been pull-toys since at least 1830. Then, in 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen created the first electric toy train, which German immigrants added as components under their evergreens.

Mr. Cowen was a store window designer in New York City. He put a battery in a toy train and made it run in a window to draw attention to a jewelry display.

The attention, however, went to the toy train, probably because the form of transportation was such a dominant factor in American culture at the time. Then, Mr. Cowen created advertisements with Christmas trees and toy trains, cementing the notion that the two items belong together, which boosted the Lionel toy train line.

“That began the electric toy train phenomena in America, and it took off,” Mr. Williams says. “There was a great love affair of trains in America and worldwide.”

Today, the miniature cars come in multiple sizes, says Susan Spindel, owner of Trains Etc. Inc. in Lorton. From smallest to largest, the gauges are Z-gauge , N-gauge, HO-gauge, S-gauge, O-gauge and G-gauge, Mrs. Spindel says. (Z-gauge is 1:220 scale; N-gauge is 1:160 scale; HO-gauge is 1:87 scale; S-gauge is 1:64 scale; O-gauge is 1:48 scale; and G-gauge is variable, but 1:22 scale is a range indicator.)

The price of trains ranges, too, depending on whether they are antique, new or used. Condition and rarity also play a factor in the value. The average new starter set would cost about $250, Mrs. Spindel says.

The size of the Christmas tree should help determine the scale of the train. For instance, most average evergreens would usually be complemented by HO-gauge to O-gauge trains. Larger trees, such as the National Tree outside the White House, look better with G-gauge trains.

G-gauge trains also can be incorporated into an outdoor layout, such as a flower garden, Mrs. Spindel says. Some companies make the larger locomotives with snow ploughs on the front, to push any precipitation off the tracks. Other accessories, such as buildings and people, can be used in indoor and outdoor displays.

“You can create your own little world,” Mrs. Spindel says. “It’s a hobby that takes you from being in the real world, to your own imaginary world, where you are the conductor of your own train. It’s your railroad. You operate your railroad the way you want.”

When creating a display under a Christmas tree, sometimes the track should be mounted, says Bill Kimball, owner of Piper Hobby in Chantilly. O-gauge and G-gauge track can usually run on carpet. HO-gauge track and smaller will most likely need to be attached to wood, unless it’s specially designed to be placed on carpet.

When the trains are originally set up under the tree for a new season, cleaning them is a good idea, Mr. Kimball says. Lubricating the train cars with a small amount of oil on the contact points could be helpful. Also, cleaning the track with commercial cleaners or a track eraser could smooth the movement of the train.

After the season is finished, storing the trains properly is important, says Mr. Kimball. People should make sure they are placed in a cool, dry environment, which is protected from dust, not thrown in an open attic box.

People will be glad when Christmas approaches that they took care of their trains, Mr. Kimball says. Otherwise, they will miss the charm of the locomotive.

“It adds interest to the Christmas tree,” Mr. Kimball says. “Children like it because it moves. It’s American. It’s colorful.”

General repair and restoration are an option for older toys, says Bill Printz, owner of Lionel Buy and Sell in Kensington. He cleans dirt and debris from the motor, completes electrical work, paints the cars and replaces parts and light bulbs.

“You don’t know what you will run into until you start working on it,” Mr. Printz says. “A lot of them are antiques. With some of them, you have to be more delicate than others.”

Whatever type of toy train is on the tracks, people enjoy watching them run for hours, says John V. Luppino, operations manager at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Pa., which is owned and operated by the Train Collectors Association.

It’s especially interesting to run the train in the dark, when the only lights are those shining from the Christmas tree and locomotive, he says.

“I can tell you for a fact that there’s something very relaxing about just sitting there watching the train run around the Christmas tree,” Mr. Luppino says. “It’s almost like therapy. There’s just something about trains that gets people to slow down, stop and watch them run.”

If someone wants a “White Christmas” under their tree, imaginary snow can even decorate the setting, says Perry Mohney, owner of the Toy Exchange in Wheaton. Snow material in a spray can or Styrofoam are frequently used in layouts. A mirror also can be used as ice for a miniature pond.

“When I was a kid, every Christmas, we would get the trains out and set them up around the tree,” Mr. Mohney says. “It was a family tradition. Trains are one of everyone’s favorite toys.”

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