“This year we should skip having the train run around the Christmas tree,” caused a strong reaction within me. When my wife Carol continued, “Because the track would extend so far out into the room that someone might trip on it,” my Christmas spirit replaced my response, honed while growing up near Philadelphia, of “Who would be that clumsy?” with “Tell them to walk more carefully.”
I wondered, “Why my strong reaction about a train around a Christmas tree?”
Research indicating that Christmas Day was the day the first passenger train in 1830 did not resonate with me. However, the most frequently cited reference, of it being related to the commercial of Lionel trains running around the tree when the children emerged, while seeming awfully commercial, came closer to matching my childhood.
My childhood memories are of my father building his Christmas layout on a couple of plywood boards in our basement. I can still visualize the Lionel shifter — which is described as a 0-4-0 engine with the first zero being the wheels under the front, sometimes called the “cow catchers” of steam engines, the four meaning there were four large drive wheels in the middle, and the other zero meaning there were no small wheels under the cab. Of course, there was a “tender” to carry the coal for this steam engine that dutifully pulled freight cars and a red caboose so conductors could check on the train. Our other engine was a 2-6-0 steam engine, sometimes called a “Pacific,” which pulled three green Pennsylvania passenger cars past the essential scenery and buildings that included the ever-present station and industrial sidings.
Some called these trains “toys,” perhaps to discourage the involvement of adults, instead of “models.” What is the difference?
“Toys” are “an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.” The word “model” was derived from the Latin word “modulus,” meaning a “measure,” and “models” are “an informative representation of an object, person or system,” which makes it fun to visualize what “object, person, or system” are an “informative representation” for models like Giselle Bundchen.
The definition of “models” seems to encompass all the various electric trains I have tried, including Lionel trains with their three railed track and many fun accessories, such as signal lights that flashed. At my 50th high school reunion, I learned the wisdom of my friend, Bruce Greenberg, trading in his Ph.D. degree and academic career for one writing the definitive books on Lionel Trains and conducting the leading shows for enthusiasts.
My space could never accommodate a Lionel layout, where engines were about a foot long, so during my career as a student, I tried the “N” gauge trains with a scale of 1:148, meaning they were 148 times smaller than the real trains. Unfortunately, this meant that the slightest vibration derailed their thumb size engines.
Later with three children, while traveling on business, I heard that the German train manufacturer Lehman Gross Bahn was offering a special 50th anniversary set of an 0-4-0 engine and two passenger cars. Their scale of 1:22 — and their metal construction being solid enough to be run outdoors — meant they might survive children as they ran under a Christmas tree. My calls in every city resulted in “Sorry, sir, we are out,” until the store in D.C. said “Sir, we have one set left,” which I gladly — OK, somewhat gladly — skipped a happy hour to acquire.
Not having a basement meant that I never could justify taking the space for HO, whose scale of 1:87 and 4–6-inch engines, increased their stability but required around 36 inches for a 360-degree turn.
In Santa Barbara, my LGB train that circles the Christmas tree is an 0-4-0 steam engine, a flat car and caboose. Having often taken trains when living back East, and even enjoying the 26-hour ride from Santa Barbara to Seattle, in the quiet, early mornings I can almost hear the tracks grunting and vibrating as the Christmas train makes an appearance from behind the tree in the same way that they do from out of tunnels.
Much like the engineer who used to blow his whistle to send a greeting to his girlfriend as he passed through Santa Barbara, which Carol wished was not in the middle of the night, the engineer and conductor prepare to send Christmas greetings of hope to the town folks they serve.
Heads appear in the windows of first the ceramic fire station, where the men and women help combat the disasters caused by lightning and careless humans; the police station, where blue uniforms help combat disasters caused by humans; the bookstore, where information is available about and relief from, the successes and failures, and their causes, of humans; the church, where “faith” is available to re-enforce “hope” for an understanding of the need for the fire station, police station and bookstore; the drug store, where at least temporary relief can be bought for the problems that come with living as well as those not solved by fire station, police station, bookstore or church; and finally the home, where people can share their lives and use their ”faith” to celebrate the “hope” that arrives with Christmas.
Things expire, including my subscriptions to Model Railroader and Garden Railways magazines, my hopes for a permanent train layout, Bruce’s running train shows although he still writes books, and one of these days, or years that anymore seem like days, will include my grandchildren’s interest in Christmas trains, but not including the spirit the Christmas trains bring to the towns and people. Perhaps that is the “modulus” of my strong emotions about a Christmas train. Merry Christmas 2022.
Brent E. Zepke is an attorney, arbitrator and author who lives in Santa Barbara. His website is OneheartTwoLivescom.wordpress.com. Formerly, he taught law and business at six universities and numerous professional conferences. He is the author of six books: “One Heart-Two Lives,” “Legal Guide to Human Resources,” “Business Statistics,” “Labor Law,” “Products and the Consumer” and “Law for Non-Lawyers.”