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The History of Christmas Train Sets + 3 Affordable Options


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The holiday season is right around the corner, which means we're gearing up for a season of making snowmen in the winter wonderland, waiting anxiously for Santa Claus, and looking for gifts to put under the tree. If you're like me, you think there's no such thing as too much decorating. If I had the budget, my house would look like Martha May Whovier's in How The Grinch Stole Christmas. There's nothing more classic than a Christmas train set, they're so cute under the Christmas tree, and they add such a festive touch to any home.

Maybe part of the reason that Christmas trains feel so traditional during the holiday season is that they've been around for so long. Having a toy train set on a train track around the Christmas tree is something that we've come to associate as part of holiday home decor, but how did these Christmas tree train sets originate?

History of Christmas Train Sets

Jim Morrison is a historian based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and he focuses primarily on the holiday we all love so much. Morrison is the curator of the National Christmas Museum in Paradise, Lancaster County, dedicated to educating people about holiday customs. He now lives in the festive museum (how fun does that sound?) and is a train enthusiast who has studied the tradition of model railroading and its role in the holiday season.


Morrison believes the custom of putting trains under the Christmas tree might have originated in Pennsylvania.

"In the mid-1700s, a group of Protestant Christians called the Moravians settled in the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, where they set up elaborate Nativity scenes in their homes called "putzen" -- the German word for decoration around the holidays," (via the Post Gazette).

These displays grew larger over the years, eventually transforming into little Christmas villages under the tree with model farmhouses and such. In the 1800s, cast-iron toys became popular, shaped into molds including carriages and houses. Around 1880, cast-iron trains came into existence, too, where they earned a place underneath the tree.

"Before Lionel manufactured the first beloved electric toy train at the turn of the century, Pennsylvanians already were adorning their displays with cast-iron and wind-up ones."


"It was just the logical thing to put around the base of a tree," said Henry Posner III of Railroad Development Corp., a Pittsburgh-based international company. "Because you can run a train circle around the base of a tree, my guess is that it was the perfect gift, at the time, for Christmas."

As the tradition grew, department stores began carrying model steam locomotives and wooden trains around Christmastime, perpetuating the electric train set as a Christmas gift. Lionel trains were, of course, the original and likely the most popular, but other competitors such as Bachmann arose, too. The idea has been passed down for generations, and today we still have electric Christmas trains of all varieties under our trees.

Christmas Train Sets for Under The Christmas Tree

Best Overall

1. Lionel North Pole Central Model Train

Lionel trains are the original, and you can bet they're going to be great. This North Pole Christmas express train includes a battery-powered general-style locomotive and tender; a gondola with crate load, a center-cupola caboose, 24 curved track pieces, and 8 straight track pieces, plus a remote controller. The train cars are rendered in high-quality materials and detail, and the holiday express makes realistic train noises, including announcements and a whistle plus a working headlight.

Best Polar Express Train

2. Lionel The Polar Express Model Train

Nothing says Merry Christmas like the Polar Express, which is why this Lionel train set is absolutely perfect for the holiday season. The set includes a battery-powered steam locomotive and tender, plus a passenger car and observation car. A remote control powers the train, which makes realistic sounds and announcements and even has a working headlight. This set is not compatible with Lionel G-Gauge or any other G-Gauge track systems.


If you're interested in getting a more serious version, the Lionel LionChief Polar Express O-Gauge model offers Bluetooth capability, a puffing smoke unit, personalized announcements, and a lot more detail. It's a collector's train, but is worth the money if you really want to get into it!

Read More: Charlie Brown Christmas Trees Will Remind You of the True Meaning of Christmas

Best Under $35

3. Santa Express Christmas Train Set

This Christmas train is perfect for any little ones who desperately want a train but aren't quite ready to handle some of the pricier options. With LED lights and colorful decorations, plus all the elves and reindeer you could ever hope for, this is a super festive model train. It comes with three boxcars, you could even put some candies in one of them for your kids to enjoy on Christmas morning. While it's on, it plays Jingle Bells to really add to the Christmas spirit.

The Merry Christmas Express requires some assembly, making for a fun project on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.


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