Lionel: History of the Train Around the Tree

Lionel: History of the Train Around the Tree

When people think of classic Christmas decorations, they can envision a warm, cozy setting with a full Christmas tree decorated with bright lights, a star-topper, sparkly ornaments… and a train chugging around the bottom? While the train around the tree is a staple component of decorating homes for Christmas, many people don’t really know where this tradition came about. And the truth is, most historians are unsure about the original intentions of placing a train underneath the tree. After decades of speculation, the most popular theory is that Lionel is responsible for the train Christmas tree decoration.

Lionel, a company that produces toy and model trains, began producing electric trains in 1901 with “The Electric Express.” At this time, families often traveled long distances to celebrate Christmas with their families by trains… as automobiles hadn’t become the unofficial mode of transportation yet. So, when the Christmas season came around, many people began to associate the holiday with train travel. Due to the time-period children were much more familiar with trains than they were cars… which led to Lionel’s new electric toy train being the ideal Christmas gift.

Since so many children found a train set wrapped underneath their Christmas tree, those trains’ first trips occurred under that very tree. The placement honestly just stuck. The tradition continued to escalate, where Christmas Villages were often paired with electric train sets. Some families decorate their homes with an extensive Christmas Village. These villages can include a schoolhouse, a city hall, a courthouse, shopping stores, ice-skating rinks, trees, benches, and the perfect mode of transportation for the festive village: an electric train.

Lionel’s influence on the Christmas holiday was not the only impact that debuting “The Electric Express” created. Lionel’s creation sprung forth a brand-new hobby: building and collecting model train cars. Model trains as a hobby is a very intricate pastime, but beloved by those who are avidly involved.

Here at the RailPark, we want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas! If you have a model train set as a part of your Christmas décor, please tag our social media accounts in your pictures so we can see your homage to the railway! You can also visit us at the Historic RailPark & Train Museum and see a full model diorama display of model trains in our gift shop!