The Christmas Train

It’s the week before Christmas and most of us in the office didn’t check-in this morning. Our brains are alive with visions of trees, turkeys, and our new toys waiting under the tree. I’m personally trying not to burst into song and dance across the office, singing about Hot-Hot Hot Chocolate, never ever let it cool, hot-hot, yea we got it…

Lead Salesman Scott’s giving me the look.. Right… Back to topic. The history of Trains and Christmas!

Trains and What?

For those of you who have never heard of this, it is fairly common in the United States to have a model train under your Christmas Tree. The famous model train maker Lionel even sells a polar express set designed to go around the tree. This is a tradition that dates back almost to the first steam trains. In some ways, it goes back even farther.

From Steam to Electricity

Steam engines were a massive symbol of travel, commerce, and industry in the late 1800s. Every Christmas, you didn’t fly home, you took the train. If you shipped something long distance, it took the train. If you were waiting for word from distant family, you probably went to the train station for a telegram. It was a massive, unavoidable part of life.

Toy trains would have been common in those days, everything from carved and painted wooden train sets to heavy, drop-this-and-lose-your-foot cast iron trains with wind up motors. There were pretty good odds someone in the family was going to get a toy train under the tree to play with, even in the days before we had electrical model trains and standard gauge model tracks.

In Pennsylvania, this would have combined well with another Christmas tradition: making model nativity scenes. In Pennsylvania Dutch (a form of German), these were sometimes called Putzes, descended from Putzen, to make pretty or decorate. They started out as small nativities, but quickly grew out, capable of turning into sprawling towns and villages. Cast iron toys made for suitable props, little houses and other decorations. Model trains were a perfect addition to the display: trains were in every town and village.

The early 1900s brought Lionel Trains’ first electric train. These were the first model trains that could drive themselves around the track. Over the years to come, these would become smaller, more elaborate and more detailed. They had lights, even simple sound effects, and attracted attention to an otherwise static portrait. Even today, you can easily find special holiday displays that fill entirely buildings with annual model displays full of elaborate track setups.

Not everyone would build out such a massive display. For some people, the train was good enough. A simple circular track was easily built and fit right under the tree. It added another element of decoration.

The Polar Express

We couldn’t talk about trains and Christmas without talking about the one, and only Christmas Train to rule all Christmas Trains, the Polar Express. For those who’ve never read the book, it’s about a boy who rides a train on Christmas Eve and meets Santa Claus. It was written by Chris Van Allsburg and published in 1985. He was inspired by childhood memories of a train on display at the Michigan State University, Pere Marquette 1225. The train’s number is literally Christmas, 12/25.

The book immediately took the world by storm. It’s considered a Christmas Classic and won awards for Van Allsburg. It’s a book anyone born in the past 40 years would’ve heard growing up and anyone older probably bought to do the reading. It was read in schools, around Christmas trees, and by Santa at the Christmas party. Trains weren’t just a display, they were now a Christmas story, here to stay.

In 2004, the train became a movie with the animated Polar Express, starring Tom Hanks as half a dozen different people, including Santa, the Conductor, the dad, the hobo, and more. The sounds for the train in the movie were recorded from the real, working Pere Marquette 1225, except for the whistle. Everything from the chug of the cylinders to the clack of the controls and the banging of cars coming together came from the train that inspired it all. Check your TV listings, you’ll see it on probably a dozen more times in the next three days alone. We can’t have Christmas without the Pol-Ex.

We’re lucky the train made it to actually inspire the story. PM 1225 was only in active service for ten years before being scheduled for scrapping. The University saved it, putting it on display in 1957. By 1971 work began to return the train to working condition and eventual local service as a historic site.

Merry Christmas!

We at Procure hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The blog will return next year with more HVAC news, history, and technology.

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