An example of a Christmas putz. In Harry Rinker’s boyhood home, the train set was an American Flyer, as opposed to this Lionel set-up.
Growing up as a youngster in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Friday after Thanksgiving marked the start of the “official” Christmas holiday shopping season. Department stores and local merchants unveiled their Christmas window displays. Santa’s Toyland opened to the delight of children of all ages. It was the first opportunity to meet and talk with the white-bearded gentleman described as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
No stores opened at midnight. There were no long lines of individuals waiting for hours to take advantage of bargain specials. Merchandise was not discounted until the holiday ended. Early shoppers spent time checking out the merchandise rather than buying it. Purchases were considered carefully and made during the second, third or final week of the season.
While Harry and his father would set up the Christmas tree and train tracks on the day after Thanksgiving, his mother and aunts would go shopping. But not buying. Purchases were something to be considered greatly. The first step was window shopping.
I have no memories of my mother and her sisters going Christmas shopping the Friday after Thanksgiving. I assume they did. What I remember is that my father and I did not. The Friday after Thanksgiving was reserved for setting up the Christmas putz, the Pennsylvania German term for a Christmas garden. Our putz comprised the toy train track platform, the Christmas tree at one end or centered within the track oval, and the Plasticville buildings and accompanying accessories.
The day began by rearranging the living room furniture to make room for the train track platform, a four-by-eight sheet of green-painted plywood featuring an oval with a smaller interior oval and a siding. When not in use, the track layout was stored in the garage eves.
Once space had been cleared, Dad and I retrieved the track platform and cleaned the accumulated dust and debris. Next came a major decision—place the platform on the floor or on a pair of sawhorses stored in the basement. This decision was critical. First, it determined the size of the tree that could be placed on the platform. Second, it determined the train speed. A floor placement provided the opportunity to send the train into a curve with such velocity that it jumped the track and careened across the floor, something I found amusing but my father did not.
The toy trains and Christmas tree lights, ornaments and other trimmings were stored under the work bench in the basement. It took three to four trips to carry the boxes upstairs. The Christmas tree trimmings were placed near the platform. The toy trains boxes set aside.
After cleaning the track, Dad removed one of the steam engines and transformer from the toy train boxes to make certain the track connections and switches worked. Once satisfied, he repacked both. “There is a time and place for everything” was one of his favorite maxims.
[Author’s Aside: I was an American Flyer child, an individual convinced that toy trains like real trains ran on two rails. Several of my cousins were Lionel kids, living in a delusional world where trains ran on three rails.]
Plasticville buildings, such as this farm house and barn unit, would sit comfortable next to Japanese cottages and other structures. Scale did not matter.
After the train platform was in place, my father and I set out in search of a Christmas tree. My father preferred hemlock over pine or spruce. Since the tree would be visible from the living room and through our street windows, it had to be full so every portion could be decorated. It also needed a long trunk in order to provide clearance for the trains that ran beneath it.
Once trimmed and shaped, the tree was placed in its stand and positioned on the platform. Christmas decorations were a combination of hand-me-downs, handcrafted Moravian stars and balls, and a few “new” items. After the lights and balls were in place, the tinsel was applied. My father was a single strand man as opposed to a tosser. The location of each strand was carefully considered.
Creating the village came next. The track platform contained no painted roads. Each year’s creation was different. A place was found for every item, the Plasticville buildings sharing space with the 1920s Japanese cottages. Scale was not important. At one corner was a lithograph tin windup “Jazzbo Jim” toy. My father had acquired it in the 1930s. The putz was not complete without it.
Finally, the engine and rolling stock were unpacked and placed on the track. There were two sets, a freight and passenger set. Since there was only one siding and the track was not zoned, it was only possible to run one set at a time. The other was boxed and stored under the platform if set up on the sawhorses or in a nearby closet if the platform was on the floor.
Setting up the Christmas putz took the entire day. Dinner consisted of Thanksgiving leftovers. Dad and I went to bed early. The Saturday after Thanksgiving was reserved for putting up the outside lights.
I do not remember when the track was stripped from train platform, although I suspect it was shortly after my father’s death in 1966. I still have my American Flyer trains, the track, the transformer and the Plasticville buildings. Each year I resolve to recreate my family putz, but I never seem to get around to it. However, on Christmas Eve, I will wind up Jazzbo Jim, flip the switch, and watch as he dances his jig in honor of memories of Christmas past.
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Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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