One of my students recently wrote, asking me: “Why do we associate toy trains with Christmastime? Could you write about it in the Advent Calendar?” I initially thought, “That’s not an Advent topic.” My essays focus on music, art, liturgical and folk traditions. Serioustopics. But toy trains?
Maerklin-Gueterzug – Pantoine (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Still, the question wouldn’t leave me alone. “Why are toy trains associated with Christmastime?” I wondered. Is it just that kids get toy trains as Christmas presents? Or is there more to it?
Toy trains go back to the mid-nineteenth century, a not-surprising fact given that trains were the cutting-edge form of transportation. Trains had become the engines of progress. Growing cities were shaped by their palatial train stations. Songs, stories, poems, and, eventually, movies placed trains in their plots. In America, trains conquered the frontier, uniting the East and West Coasts.
What child wouldn’t want a miniature version of all this excitement?
A distinction was made early on between toy trains (for playing) and model trains (finely crafted collectors’ items). The “locomotion” of toy trains was provided a number of ways, including wind-up mechanisms and steam, but as early as 1897, electric trains made their debut. In the 1890s, Märklin, a German manufacturer of doll-house accessories, capitalized on a basic marketing principle, namely, the purchase of a train would be followed by a desire for accessories: gates, lights, bridges, figures, even miniature trees.
In the United States, the Lionel Company of New York City was founded in 1900 by a first-generation American, Joshua Lionel Cowen, whose life was bound up with trains. Lionel fostered the idea that playing with trains helped prepare a child for adulthood. Major gifts of toys were saved for Christmastime, so the custom of finding a toy train under the tree developed naturally.
But what about now? Today’s kids aren’t begging Santa for toy trains, are they? Isn’t there an app for that?
Maybe not. Toy trains are still incredibly fun to play with. And they teach many of the same lessons today they did a hundred years ago: imagination, dexterity, patience.
But adults seek them out at Christmastime for another reason. Nostalgia.
The word nostalgia isn’t so simple. At its core are two Greek roots: algos, “pain, grief, distress,” and nostos “homecoming.” Coined in a 1668 Swiss dissertation as a Latin version of the German term Heimweh (“Home-Woe”), doctors initially recognized nostalgia as a type of mental illness—a serious depression caused by inordinate longing. During the Civil War, nostalgia was identified as a threat to soldiers’ well-being.
Nostalgia became a sweeter, softer word only in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. As society reeled from the destruction of an entire way of life, nostalgia came to mean a longing for things that could not be restored.
Could not be restored. It’s quite common for us to approach Christmas seeking the restoration of something that seems out of reach. We’ve come to see old-fashioned toys as a way to counteract the impersonal edges of our multi-tasking society. Why else would we fall over ourselves to buy puzzles, dominos, and Raggedy Ann dolls in December? Old-fashioned toys promise the restoration of an idealized Christmas Past.
And they surely help. They all take time to play. They require sitting around a table and doing something together . . . as a family. They give us permission to shut out the pressures of daily life and engage with one another. We should value the gifts that bring families together—the toy trains, the puzzles, even the pot-holder weaving kits.
But nostalgic toys can’t really restore that idealized Christmas Past. Isn’t that where Advent comes in? Advent reminds us each year that our “homesickness” is not really for an idealized past, nor for things that cannot be restored. Rather, Advent reminds us thateverything is restored and renewed in the promise in Christmas.
So be prepared to treasure the gasp of delight when the little track is assembled, the wires connected, the lights flash, and the train runs its first circuit. Let us rejoice knowing that the beauty of Christmas is not lost in the past, but is always new.
Before moving on to your ninth mission, take a moment to reflect on yesterday’s mission. What was it like to realize that you own your feelings, and that you can learn to control them? Did your feelings about the person who you thought hurt you change after you thought about the good things in your life? Did your feelings of sadness or anger change? What might need to happen in order for you to forgive this person completely?
Your ninth mission, Agents, is to bring comfort to those who are not feeling well.
Bring comfort to kids who are not feeling well by making art to hang in the nurse’s or principal’s office. Draw some colorful pictures or decorations that will let these fellow students know that you are wishing them to get better. Then, deliver the pictures to your school nurse!
Agents, remember... As you fulfill your mission, share your experiences on theCompassion Report Map! Your report inspires others, amplifying the power of your compassion and generosity!
Compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you see another’s suffering and want to help relieve that suffering. Although you may just be learning about the word compassion, you have probably felt compassion before. If you see someone who is sad, hurt, or crying, you may have felt a pull within you that wanted to do something to help them, to comfort them and soothe their pain. Compassion is a central part to who we are as human beings, and the more we feel compassion and act upon it, the more we feel a greater sense of purpose, happiness, and connection in life with others.