Dad’s Lionel trains are long gone, enriching some collector’s basement while enriching my father, the toys of his childhood becoming an unexpected investment that paid off as his own children got older.
But for most of my childhood, setting up those trains marked the commencement of our preparation for Christmas. In the days before Black Friday (Friday now boldly Thursday night, the never-ending movement backward into our Thanksgiving meal), the arrival of the Sear’s “Wishbook” and a blanket of pine needles covering the lawn, not long after Halloween, would turn our eyes toward the attic door and the trains, boxed and carefully wrapped in newspaper, the attic their home for 11 months of the year.
After Thanksgiving, the trains always came first, then the tree and the Styrofoam arts-and-crafts reindeer and strands of garland, and the snowman and Santa candles and the cardboard chimney where the stockings with our names in looping glitter script would be hung.
Unwrapping each train car or building or piece of track served as an early Christmas morning, like greeting an old friend, the tanker car, the caboose, the car that held logs and could even dump, passenger cars with faces in the windows, and the steam engine, most valuable of all.
The trains were heavy and metal and raced around the track if one moved the switch on the transformer all the way to the right. Dad was keen on keeping things oiled, crossing gates dropping just in the nick of time, the automobiles safe and warning little metal pedestrians of certain death, but offering not one iota of protection from the cat or the dog, should they become curious or playful.
One could put special pills into the smoke stack of the engine and it would puff real smoke for a while and with the lights off in the room, the lights of the train and the buildings cast a glow in its vapors. Dad and I always had those trains as something that brought us together. They had their own magic.
My own sons are older now, one in college, one nearly so, the last one on the cusp of high school. And some years we pull out a box of HO trains from our backroom storage, smaller and plastic, but just as fast at taking the turns and assuredly as susceptible to the interests of dogs and cat alike.
Some of these trains we acquired from my father, who re-discovered his love for them later in life, passing them on to us one year not long ago, and some came to us by my own need to remember what was, to hear the train racing along the track once more. We build our layout and truth be told, sometimes let the train careen off a tight turn derailing a dozen cars in the process and share a laugh, if only for a moment.
This year is our year to host the family; Dad and Mom and one of my sisters will make the trip down. And despite the ample use of futons, we’ll find room for the trains, three generations together, each year as we all grow older more of a gift, our time together at its heart the very essence of the un-commercialization of Christmas, even our time running the trains.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Incarnation is God choosing to be in relationship with us. This season may we humbly and quietly live out our Christmas by first and foremost tending the flock of our relationships with more grace, more patience, and more love; whether the relationships that define us be family, friend or stranger; whether they be found at home, at church, at work or in the margins and byways of our lives, there around the table, the TV or the train set.