The Trains of Christmas


Train gardens are everywhere at this time of year: the Ellipse as mentioned in a previous post, the United States Botanic Garden, Brookside Gardens, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and its smaller site in Ellicott City, Union Station, various local fire stations, and private homes.

Several years ago, amid visiting all these miniature train displays, I wondered, What do trains have to do with Christmas? When I searched the Internet, I learned that Paul D. Race must have wondered the same thing, leading him to write an article called “What Do Trains Have to Do with Christmas?”

Here are the three main reasons he concluded:

  • Trains as a symbol of the traveling of people, and mailing of gifts, that happen during the holidays. “Let’s face it,” writes Rice, “more people and stuff move at Christmas than any other time of year, and for over a century, more people and stuff moved by trains than any other way. So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains.”
  • The giving of model and toy trains as Christmas gifts.
  • The nostalgia evoked by trains, or “memories of simpler times.”

Race writes of the term “train garden” as particular to the Baltimore/DC region. In another article, the writer elaborates on the putzen in Pennsylvania, which may start with a Nativity scene and grow to include a whole town or village complete with railroads.

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

In December 2005, I visited the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore with family members, including my late grandfather who loved trains. We saw what are considered by some to be “the finest examples of railroad scale models ever produced” from the Smithsonian collection, climbed aboard real-life full-size railcars in the Roundhouse, and trained our eyes on the tiny details of a whimsical holiday miniature train display, including a carousel, a Starbucks, a diner, and Thomas the Tank Engine.

The exhibits at the museum showed big trains that people might have taken to visit loved ones for the holidays, and small trains that people may have given to loved ones as holiday gifts. As for the “memories of simpler times,” as a museum of railroad history, the B&O Railroad Museum is tasked with presenting not just the stories of the past that seem simple and happy, but also the complexities and the struggles. Among the museum’s educational offerings are lesson plans on topics such as slavery, the Civil War, and labor strikes, all in the context of the world of trains.

We may not have, or have ever had, simple times, yet trains are one of the many symbols of Christmas that add a little sense of magic to the world. Happy holidays, whatever you are celebrating and however you are getting there!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Museums and Holidays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Trains of Christmas

  1. blackmutts says:

    My daughter is so obsessed with trains, we really need to visit the Bronx Botanic Gardens Holiday train display… which are made of recycled plastic, I have heard… FYI, you are the only one in blogworld who knows my daughter’s name, as I have meticulously avoided using either kid’s names even if they mentioned, for their privacy.

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