There is something magical about trains. Perhaps it is the allure of heading someplace mystical and far away. Perhaps it is the lonesome sound of their horns as they pass by. It is not often, but when the fog lies just right over the valley, we can hear their calling echoing across the hills as the trains pass by the mouth of the creek where it joins the river a few miles to the south. Perhaps it is this magic, of heading off someplace far away and special, that has led to the tradition of placing the circular track of a toy train that runs around and around under our Christmas trees.

When I was a child, our Christmas tree always stood in the corner of our living room, and I remember how I would crawl deep under the tree and curl up on the floor to watch the train pass by. The scent of pine and the oil from the toy engine mingled wonderfully.

I remember that the train’s steam locomotive had a single headlight that shone on the wrapped gifts when the train ran at night. I remember thinking that the train’s circus giraffe was particularly special. The creature’s long neck poked up through the roof of his car, as his eyes looked cautiously ahead for the low viaduct that somehow magically triggered him to duck down and avoid decapitation.

My favorite car of all, though, was the red caboose. I would watch as it trundled away at the back of the passing train, happily knowing that it would be around again in no time at all.

It was somehow an unspoken truth in our family that the train belonged to my father and brother. My mother and I were permitted to play with it, but only with their supervision and instruction.

I expressed my slight distress at their ownership, and my mother gently reminded me that I was the owner of the Easy-Bake Oven, not to mention the beautiful doll carriage that really looked quite real. Still, I loved lying behind the tree, thankful to be there but still wishing for a train of my own.

Then, one Christmas morning, after I thought that all of the presents had been opened, with the floor still covered with wrapping paper, I decided to crawl to the back corner of the living room, far back under the tree.

I paused halfway to the corner and called to my parents. There hid a huge unopened gift. Its tag was large and very clearly read “To: Christine and her Mother … From: Santa.”

Our parents helped pull the gift out from behind the tree, and yes, inside was a train set, smaller scale than that of my father and brother, but so very beautiful.

I hugged my mother, and we carried the box out into the middle of the floor to set it up. It was our train, and we could not have been more happy.

Every Christmas I could ever remember had been wonderful, but to my youthful mind, that Christmas was the best one ever. I remember lying on the floor beside my mother as we watched our very own train running around and around on its very own track.

I eventually grew up, moved away, had children of my own, and for years I did not think about the train.

Then one year, many years later while I was visiting my parents, my own children long grown, my mother told me that it was time to give me something that had really been mine all along. She held out the little engine. I took it into my hands as she turned to pick up a carefully packaged box holding all of the original cars, track and of course, the transformer.

We hugged and sat right down in the middle of the floor to set it up. It ran just like it always had. We sat there and watched it circle its track, talking about that one special Christmas, and all the others, so many, many years ago.

So now that Greg and I have moved across the gravel driveway and into our more spacious log home, we once again have room for a Christmas tree in our lives and the space to set up my little train. We plan to cut down our tree in the next few days, but I have already been getting ready. I have the little train set up on the dining room table, and as I sit here watching, I feel as though I could stay right here forever, watching it go around and
around on its track, as I am wrapped warmly in its memories and magic.

I remember as a child being called to dinner and just wanting to lie still and watch it forever. That is how I feel now. I doubt that I’ll be cooking dinner tonight.

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio.