December 03, 2011

Christmas Gardens - Hop a Train to Old Baltimore

It being December and all, I am going to briefly switch tracks from my normal old house ramblings to pay homage to my favorite of all Christmas traditions - the Christmas Garden.
For those of you who are conjuring up visions of poinsettias, holly bushes or some sort of festive horticultural extravaganza, please accept my most sincere sympathies for the deprivation that you have so clearly endured in your life.  On the other hand, for those enlightened souls who immediately picture the sparkle of mica on a well-worn cardboard house, smell a fleeting whiff of ozone from an ancient Lionel transformer, or hear the unmistakable Baltimore accent of a long-forgotten neighbor, I hope that you will grab a glass of egg nog and sit down to watch the trains while I school our less fortunate friends.

According to the Encyclopaedia Kriskringlia, a Christmas Garden is defined as a miniature village set up at Christmas time, located either beneath the Christmas tree or on a raised wooden platform, and encircled by an electric train.  Actually, I made up the reference book (how can Wikipedia not have a Christmas Garden entry?), but the definition holds true despite its questionable source.  

Sparkle, sparkle!

At its most mundane level, a Christmas Garden can be nothing more than a few Department 56 buildings and a new-from-WalMart train set (this qualifies as a Christmas Garden only technically, and certainly not in spirit).  At the other extreme, it can be a display large enough to fill an entire fire station, and requiring hundreds of man hours to erect (check out the Wise Avenue Fire Department in Dundalk, MD, one of the few remaining public meccas of Christmas Gardendom). Whether large or small, however, when artfully executed, a Christmas Garden can be transcendent - a melting pot of ingenuity, nostalgia, childish wonder and manifest Christmas spirit.

Boring Historical Perspective
(If you are in a hurry, feel free to skip this section, like that interminable discourse on whaling in Moby Dick that nobody ever reads,  whoops, too late, you've already come this far so might as well keep reading . . . )

These displays surfaced in America in the 19th century, brought to the Mid Atlantic region by German immigrants.  The once static village scenes took on new life in the Victorian era with the arrival of electric toy trains.  As Marx, Lionel and American Flyer made these trains more accessible in the early 20th century, the stage was set for the golden age of the Christmas Garden.  Sometimes referred to as Christmas villages, train gardens, or Putzes (shout out to my large readership of Pennsylvanian Moravians), they flourished in Maryland as Christmas Gardens, and remained stalwarts of the Christmas season around Baltimore through 1960s.

The Baltimore Christmas Garden
Born in 1972, I missed the heyday of the Christmas Garden.  Once upon a time, as the legend goes, every fire department in the area featured its own elaborate Christmas Garden (a few still do), as did many private homes.  My grandmother used to tell us about her father's Depression-era garden, which featured moving playground equipment and other motorized scenes.  Sadly, no pieces of that garden made their way down my branch of the family tree.  Still, my grandparents always had a train around their tree, and I remember a second garden with old Lionel trains in their basement at Christmastime when I was very young, as well as a more elaborate, multi-level garden in the house across the street.  For a 6 year old boy, there probably is nothing cooler than getting hopped up on Christmas candy and watching trains fly around a track next to a Christmas tree the week before Christmas.

From the time I lived in my first apartment in New York City, I have always had a train around the tree, and was a little surprised that this wasn't part of Christmas everywhere.  Like sauerkraut at Thanksgiving dinner (weird, but true), it is one of the things that is so imbued in you growing up in Maryland, that you just assume that it is universal.

A few years ago, with a house of my own, I decided that it was time to set up a proper Christmas Garden.  So, with a few pieces from my parents and grandparents, and with lots of help from eBay, I got to work.  Having built my own garden,  I obviously am now an authority, and have a boundless font of wisdom from which to fill your eager minds.  So, get out your pencil and take notes.

Hey, Kids - You Can Build your own Christmas Garden Right at Home!
While much of the beauty of the Christmas Garden comes from the individuality that is reflected in each display, there are a few key ingredients that I think are necessary for a classic Baltimore Christmas Garden.  These are: 
  • Trains - old, metal and preferably Lionel.  The engine should smoke and the cars should light up;
  • Buildings - glittery, mica-covered houses of all shapes and sizes.  Houses, churches, stores and a train station at a minimum.  These need to be lit up from the inside to show off the colored cellophane windows;
  • Accessories - Old metal cars, people and signs, woolly sheep and celluloid animals are a must.  Scale does not matter and mixing large and small items without regard to their relative  proportions in the real world seems to enhance the overall feel;
  • Nativity Scene - big and centrally located is best.  It is Christmas, after all, and gardens started out as quasi-religious displays.
  • Santa Claus - include as many as possible around the garden;
  • Snow - cotton, soap flakes, glitter, spray-can snow, even plain old white paint.  It is always snowing somewhere in a Christmas Garden;
  • Animation - something should move.  Skaters spinning around, Santa's sleigh circling overhead, cars moving on a road, whatever.  Bonus points if you make it yourself.
  • Local color - include a friend's name on a sign, a copy of a local building, or street signs from your town.  Cleverness counts;
  • Scenery - a pond and a tunnel are required.  No exceptions.  Bottle brush trees should be used lavishly;
  • Extra Credit: use red brick-printed corrugated cardboard rolls to wrap around the garden to hide the plywood and wiring.

So, there you have it.  The Christmas Garden in all of its holiday splendor.  Now, go get out your grandfather's Lionel trains and set them up around the tree.  I'll be working alongside you in spirit.  Having missed my self-imposed schedule of setting up the Christmas Garden the Saturday after Thanksgiving (much to my 2 year old's disappointment), my project for the week is to get everything up and running by the weekend. 

Here is a picture of last year's finished product to help inspire your Christmas Garden green thumb.

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