Niagara Gazette

Extra

December 11, 2008

EXTRA: Christmas tree trains keep on chugging

By MEGAN K. SCOTT

Associated Press Writer



NEW YORK (AP) — Chris Forsyth's best Christmas was when he woke up to a train chugging around the tree, a conductor's hat and a little pair of overalls.

So he makes sure to put a train around his Christmas tree each year.

"It brings back those good memories," said Forsyth, 43, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., adding that he is reminded of the excitement of that Christmas morning when he was 6. "It conveys the magic of childhood."

Memories are what often bring out Christmas tree trains this time of the year, as people purchase new sets or dig out their old ones for repairs.

Electric trains under the Christmas tree date back to at least the early 1900s, according to Paul D. Race, editor of BigChristmasTrains.com. But prior to electric, there were wind-up and push trains.

In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, a good train set could cost as much as a washing machine, said Race.

"It was the biggest present you could possibly get, and as a result, it was reserved for Christmas," he said. "Once the presents were opened, usually the only place you could set up the track was around the tree."

Trains also had a special significance because they brought people home for the holidays, according to Ron Hollander's "All Aboard!: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen & His Lionel Train Company."

"So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains," said Race.

By 1960, Christmas trains were as ubiquitous as gaming systems are today, said Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel, the leading model train manufacturer.

Even today, when the most-hyped electronics tend to be music players or communication devices, and old-fashioned electric train chugging around the Christmas tree is popular.

Lionel is expecting a 50 percent increase in sales of starter sets, including licensed ones such as a Harry Potter "Hogwarts Express," over 2007 based on holiday pre-orders from major retailers. Lionel sold 200,000 model train sets in 2007 compared with 80,000 in 2004, and the bulk of those were the ready-to-run sets, according to the company.

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