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Setting up the tree and the train

Although some of the people in our neighborhood had their Christmas stuff up well in advance of Thanksgiving, my wife and I did the traditional thing, setting the tree up the day after Thanksgiving. We use a pre-lit artificial tree. Growing up, I remember stringing lights on the tree and taking them back down was always the most tedious part of the job, so I decided that if someone didn’t invent it before me, I’d invent the pre-lit Christmas tree.

Someone else did, of course. The next time I get a great idea I need to move on it more quickly.

The angel wouldn’t light, so I got out the spare strand of lights, yanked one bulb, and started yanking bulbs out of the angel and plugging them into the strand to see if I could find the bad one. That got tedious, so I eventually decided to try the fuses. I swapped in the two spares off the spare strand, after checking the rating of course, and the angel came back to life.

The Christmas village is almost entirely secondhand. My wife found five Department 56 buildings–three houses, a church, and a store–at a yard sale a couple of years ago. Last year she found a secondhand bookstore, which she gave me for my birthday. For figures, we use the Cobblestone Corners figures from Dollar Tree, which are sized more appropriately for the buildings than the giant figures Department 56 sells. Plus, they come three or four to a package for a dollar, instead of selling for three or four dollars apiece.

Rather than use the big, clunky lights that come with the buildings, I lit them using a string of LED lights. They run cool and use almost no power. Once warm white LEDs become easier to find (the strand I have is a very cold blue light) I have half a mind to figure out how to convert the tree itself to LEDs. For lighting buildings, the strand of LED lights takes up less space, uses one plug instead of five, and uses less power.

For the train, I put down a simple loop of Lionel Fastrack. In the past I’ve done a dogbone with a reverse loop on each end, but that takes up a lot of space. A loop of Fastrack can take up as little as three feet by four feet.

The train is short and simple–two boxcars and a caboose, all 1950s vintage. The boxcars are Marx and American Flyer bodies I bought for a couple of dollars at a train show. I made replacement bases for them out of basswood from a hobby shop, and screwed a couple of cheap Lionel trucks with fixed couplers onto the base using wood screws, with a fender washer in between and a little bit of white grease between the truck and the washer. The total cost of each car was less than $6. From an operational standpoint the fixed couplers are a liability, but for running around a tree they’re ideal because they won’t come uncoupled. The caboose is a lighted Southern Pacific style caboose I got off eBay as part of a damaged goods lot. When I got it, the only problem with it was that the bulbs had some out of their sockets.

The locomotive is a Lionel 2026 that belonged to Dad. I had it professionally refurbished in 2003, so it probably runs better now than it did 50 years ago.

All in all, it was a nice way to spend the evening after Thanksgiving. We had half a mind to drive downtown to see the new old-style window displays at the downtown Macy’s (formerly Famous-Barr), but we’ll save that for another night.

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