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Choosing Christmas Trains and Villages. This display uses Hawthorne Village(r) trains and structures inspired by the work of Thomas Kinkade(r). The train and the town are compatible with a wide range of other resources.  Big Christmas TrainsOn30 Display Trains
O Gauge Christmas TrainsOn30 Christmas Trains
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Large Scale Christmas Trains

Written by Paul D. Race for and

    Christmas villages go back over a century, but in most households they faded in popularity when houses lost their parlors and the television took over the living room. Now that Dept. 56®, Hawthorne Village®, and other companies have repopularized Christmas villages, many folks who've never had an electric train are wondering what are the best trains to use with their new ceramic or porcelain or resin village and accessories. This is not the same as asking what kind of train is best around a Christmas tree - in fact only one kind of train is really good for both purposes, but we'll get into that later.

    This page will answer a few basic questions about trains for your holiday village, then list links where you can go for more information and project ideas.

    How Big are Christmas Villages and the Trains that go with Them?

    • Towns - Most name-brand Christmas village structures average between 4.5" - 8" in all directions, with a few pieces up to 9" or 10" tall. This makes them small enough to fit a nice village on a tabletop or large shelf, and large enough to see clearly.

    • Trains - The two kinds of trains that work best with Christmas villages can fit a track circle into 38". If you don't have a table quite that size, a few alternatives are listed further down the page

    For detailed information on the scales of Christmas trains please see our article "Sizes and Scales of Big Christmas Trains".

    Where Do Christmas Towns Come From?

    Christmas village structures have historically come from a wide range of sources. Here's a quick timeline (dates are approximate):

    • Before 1900 - For many years, families made their own structures for their Christmas displays. In the late 1800s, folks started adding German-manufactured candyboxes shaped like houses in their Christmas displays.

    • 1905 - 1939 - When electric trains became popular, their manufacturers made buildings and accessories that also found their way to Christmas displays, usually along with the trains. In some regions, the resulting displays often took over the entire parlor or living room for most of December.

      1929 - 1965 - Japanese-made cardboard houses with holes in the back for lights became common. Eventually these houses, and Christmas villages in general, went out of style when many families' televisions encroached on the space that had been used for Christmas displays.

    • 1976 - Dept. 56(r) made their first Snow Village(r) ceramic Christmas village collection. Eventually they added several other "collections," featuring different times, places, and themes.

    For more detailed historical information, check out the Family Christmas OnlineTM article A Brief History of Christmas Villages.

    You Can Make Your Own - If you like the vintage look of the old cardboard or tinplate houses, we have a wealth of free projects and resources for replicating either look on your own Christmas village or railroad. Some of those projects have links further down the page.

    You Can Buy Other People's - Since Dept. 56(r) introduced their ceramic and porcelain Christmas village houses, dozens of other brands have come in and out of the business. The Family Christmas OnlineTM article A Brief History of Christmas Villages describes and compares many of the current options.

    Our buyer's guides include many specialized collectible Christmas Village collections from Hawthorne Village(r), including villages inspired by the work of Thomas Kinkade(r) and Norman Rockwell, the shows It's a Wonderful Life and Andy of Mayberry, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer(r), brand names like Coca Cola(r), John Deer(r), Disney(r), and many more besides.

    Where Do Christmas Village Trains Come From?

    Not many folks are up to building their own trains for their Christmas village (if you are, let me know, and I'll talk to you about a feature article). Most "store-bought" trains that work great with Christmas villages fall into two basic categories: O gauge, and On30.

    This is the Lionel Polar Express train. Click to see a buyer's guide that features this train and others by Lionel.O gauge Train Sets - These sets, mostly made by Lionel, include sets with Christmas colors and sets with realistic railroad names, which are actually more traditional, if you think about it. Their best O gauge set for Christmas is the Polar Express, shown at the right. O gauge train sets are also large and sturdy enough to use around a floor-standing Christmas tree.

    On30 Trains - In 1999, Bachmann invented an On30 train set specifically to go with Dept. 56(r) villages. The trains are almost as big as O gauge trains from Lionel, but their paint job and detailing are a better match for most quality Christmas villages. They will work around a Christmas tree in a pinch, but if you're thinking about JUST a holiday village, On30 may be your best bet. Today they are mostly available in two formats:

      The Bachmann On30 Christmas locomotive. Click to see a buyer's guide featuring this and similar trains.

    • Bachmann-branded On30 train sets are sold in a box with track and power supply, ready to run. Their Christmas-themed trains usually include one passenger set, one freight set, and a few different street cars to choose from.

    • This Hawthorne Village(r) coach has been finished with licensed detailing from Thomas Kinkade(r) paintings. Click to see more Hawthorne Village trainsHawthorne Village On30 train collections are sold a piece at a time, like most of their collections. They are based on the Bachmann chasses, and mechanically warranteed by Bachmann. However, the quality and variety of the artwork is incredible. Like the Hawthorne Village collections, they include collections inspired by Thomas Kinkade(r), Norman Rockwell, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer(r), Coca Cola(r), Disney(r), and many more besides.

    Now if you're getting nervous about choosing the right train, here's two things you should know:

    • Bachmann On30 and Hawthorne Village trains are 100% compatible - they use the same track, couplers, and power supplies.

    • O gauge and On30 trains can run on the same railroad - they just can't run on the same track.

    So don't let "paralysis by analysis" cause you to put off ordering a train for your Christmas village until it's too late. If you start with one kind of train this year, and later on, you like the looks of another one, you can run them both in the same village - a growing number of people do.

    What if You Don't Have Room for a 38" Track Circle?

    A few alternatives are available:

    • Check out the Bachmann On30 reversable street car set shown on our On30 Christmas Trains page. These are getting harder to come by - all the suppliers I usually link to are sold out, but they're worth tracking down.

    • Check out Lionel/K-Line's Superstreets package - It's fake road that has O gauge track embedded in it - great for running a Lionel trolley in a 2'-deep space. (I don't have a page about this yet, but Amazon shows some Superstreets products on this page.

    • Build a slightly wider base to sit on your table. You could consider getting a 40" or larger square of 3/8" plywood cut for you, or get a 2"-to-4"-thick piece of 4'x8' insulating foam and cut it down to size. (I use a "coping and scrolling" blade in my B&D hand-held jig saw.)

    For More Information

    If this article hasn't quite given you the information you need, try one of the following:

    • Scales and Gauges - They're not the Same - A detailed description of the difference between scales like O and HO and gauges like O gauge, On30, HO gauge, HOn36, and so on.

    • Sizes and Scales of Big Christmas Trains - Contains similar content to this one, but includes content about Christmas trains for trees and public displays, as well as holiday villages.

    • A Brief History of Christmas Villages - Describes the centuries-old tradition, with information about resources currently available. From Family Christmas OnlineTM.

    • Department 56(r) Village Trains - A review of porcelain train sculptures and real electric trains that have been sold under the name Dept. 56.

    • Sizes and Scales of Big Indoor Trains - Which trains are best for an indoor O scale railroad? How much room do these trains take up anyway?

    • Which (Garden Train) Scale Should I Model? - Scale and gauge issues for "Large Scale" trains - the kind that run on 45mm/1.775" track outdoors - are much more complicated than they are for indoor trains. For that reason, our Family Garden TrainsTM site has a whole article dedicated just to that subject. If you are planning to get into Large Scale trains, and you want some straight answers to complicated questions, check it out.

    Christmas Train and Town Projects

    The following articles from our collection have free instructions and plans for inexpensive projects that will look great on your holiday village or railroad. Several others that apply to any indoor village or railroad are listed farther down the page. Enjoy, but let us know if you find the articles useful.

    In addition, you can help by sending us project tips, article ideas, and photos of your railroads and villages. We want this site to be as useful as possible to as many people as it can be. As the hobbies we serve grow, we all benefit.

    "Tribute to Tinplate" Articles Here's a series of projects that pay "Tribute to Tinplate," based on the tinplated-steel trains and towns of a century ago. Free downloadable commercial-grade graphics and instructions will help you inexpensively add an authentic vintage look to any indoor railroad. Most projects have multiple pre-scaled plans and graphics, so you can easily add a vintage look to any railroad or holiday village. We have more on the drawing board, so be sure and check back. Click to go to article
    What is a Glitterhouse? - Collecting and building authentic, vintage-style pasteboard houses. Includes many free downloadable plans, photos, and detailed instructions. We also provide instructions for making scenic accessories that go with any Christmas village.Click to see 'What is a Glitterhouse?' article
    Combining Trains and Towns - Why combining collectible village pieces and model trains is a growing and rewarding hobby. Click to go to article
    Portable (Foam-Based) Indoor Displays - Using a foam-based portable scenic foundation to display your trains and towns to their best advantage. This photo shows three of the scenery ideas on our primer pages combined. Click to see the Portable Indoor Display article.
    Easy Indoor Lakes and Rivers - How to get the effect of waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and streams on both temporary and permanent indoor railroads and display villages. Click to go to Article.
    Free Scenery Set Pieces - Add a vertical dimension to your holiday village for little or no investment. The technique can easily be adapted to all seasons. Click to go to article.
    Easy Homemade Trees - How to make realistic and inexpensive trees using (mostly) natural materials. Click to go to article
    Winter Trees from Floral Picks- A quick and inexpensive way to add interesting textures to your late-autumn or winter railroad or villageClick to go to article

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