If you have a Christmas tree, then yes, I think you do. Please let me explain. The base of the Christmas tree is a space for toys, and electric trains are not merely toys, but toys that are animated with motion, light and sound. There’s a certain connection between Christmas and trains that’s part of the holiday culture. Here’s where it gets complicated, though: what electric trains do you use for this purpose, exactly? Here are some of your options:
1. The American Flyer or Lionel Trains Already Up In the Attic – First question is, are they up there? Well, if someone in your household was a parent or child in the 1950s, they almost certainly had toy trains. They were enormously popular at the time (until the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the stampede to “space toys”). If you have them, bring them down. They are durable and have a great vintage look. However, remember they are 60 years old and might need some work.
2. HO Trains – “Half O” gauge trains have continued to be popular over the intervening years, and families are more likely to have a set of them around. They are reliable and accurate scale models, but since they are only “half O” (gauge), they are too small to be the right scale for a Christmas tree. If you have a small tree or a tabletop tree, HO would be the way to go.
3. On30 Trains – The prevalence of HO track combined with its small size spurred the development of On30, bigger O size trains on the narrow HO track. They are usually steam era stock and have an appealing antique look, although they are not precisely to scale. Check out the Bachmann starter sets. They’re pricey, but beautiful and the perfect size.
4. New O Gauge Trains – You can still buy brand-new Lionel trains (from Amazon or other places; even Wegman’s is selling a version of them in their grocery stores in the Northeastern United States). For $200 or so, you get a high-quality toy that has stood the test of time, not to mention the perfect working ornament for the tree base. The technology might be too retro for the modern child, however. The transformer still controls the speed, forward and reverse. Needless to say, there’s very little steering involved …
5. LEGO Trains – LEGO has had trains since 1966, but they have changed their specifications a number of times, most recently from 9V to RC. Some of their train models were also lacking in realism. Since 2007, they seem to have settled on the new Power Functions as the way to go. The Emerald Night steam locomotive looks like a real steam engine, and it is scaled to all the other parts of the LEGO universe (similar to O gauge in model train world). They also make the Hogwarts Express for the diehard Harry Potter fans.
6. Battery Powered G Scale Trains – Is all of this too much for you? Do you perhaps not feel the need to spend $200 for a train that you will only use for one month a year? Do you not want to think about HO, S, O, On30 or G? That’s perfectly understandable, so feel free to take the easy way out. Battery powered G scale trains are available in many local toy stores, or get the Hershey from Walmart or the Polar Express from Amazon. They are big, the same scale as the G scale trains used in expensive garden railroads, so they are easy for children to handle and look impressive around the tree. They are slightly lacking in model train snob appeal, so hopefully you don’t know too many model train snobs.
Here are three things to consider. A figure-8 layout is much more interesting than an oval. You get to watch the locomotive pull the cars through a gradual left turn, than around a gradual right turn. Also, I think steam engines are more fun to watch than diesels, with the smoke coming out and the busy rods on the wheels. Finally, avoid the “Christmas train” paint schemes on the trains themselves. You’ll find that the train itself is “Christmas-y” enough.
And one more thing: you don’t need to have a child living in the house to appreciate the holiday spirit of an electric train circling your Christmas tree. Daisy loves ours — once I explained the nuances of track size, manufacturer, steam vs. diesel, and accessories. She, too, is now happily mesmerized by our chugging Christmas train.