Deck the halls with trains and trolleys

Having grown up as a young boy in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 1950s, William Day now recalls the excitement and wonder that arrived with each Christmas season. His father would bring out the train set that circled the Christmas tree, and William and his siblings watched in awe. Decades later, Day and his wife, Susan, have managed to recreate the splendor and delight of the holidays with their own train set and Christmas scene in their Dagsboro home – one that has brought pleasure to their children and grandchildren and holiday guests, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Coastal Point • Ryan Saxton: William Day’s Christmas putz includes a train set, hand built houses, and various other decorations he’s saved from childhood and found in antique shops. Children from the area enjoy seeing his displays each year.Coastal Point • Ryan Saxton
William Day’s Christmas putz includes a train set, hand built houses, and various other decorations he’s saved from childhood and found in antique shops. Children from the area enjoy seeing his displays each year.

Traditionally referred to as a “Christmas putz,” the miniature Christmas villages surrounding the trains first became popular during the early and mid-20th century, particularly among the Pennsylvania Dutch, with their German ancestry. The term “putz” is derived from the German verb “putzen,” meaning “to decorate.” A nativity scene was usually found at the base of the tree, and, from there, families began decorating with miniature cardboard buildings and winter scenes with figurines.

“We still have small cardboard buildings that we used to buy at the five-and-dime store,” said William Day.

As anyone who has lived in the U.S. since the 1950s and subsequent decades well knows, prices of goods have steadily risen, while the buying power of the dollar had drastically dropped, and the small decorative homes that could once be purchased for a nickel or dime are now selling for $20 or more in antique shops.

To save money without losing the authenticity of the originals, Day decided to start making his own miniature houses and buildings.

“The buildings I put together look identical to the ones our family [decorated with] growing up,” he said.

The architecture Day recreates right at his home resembles that of houses and churches from the early 1900s through 1967. He even has a replica of his grandmother’s home in Hanover, Pa., where the family would often gather during the holiday season.

“I could tell you each room that every one of those windows belonged to,” Day said proudly. “I was able to snap pictures of the home and have it recreated before it was torn down.”

Two tracks wind through Day’s “putz,” accommodating the aluminum and tin locomotives, including the remake of the Lionel Santa Fe model that winds through the village. The train’s whistles alert the petite villagers of the train’s arrival as the tracks move over and through a mountainside – a landscape re-created by Day, himself, with insulation foam and paint.

Also in the scene, a carousel spins around, providing Christmas tunes and carols, while nearby, ice skaters twirl on a small frozen pond. Atop the mountain, a trolley runs a track, traveling from one side to the other. A group of tiny people keeps warm by a flickering campfire, amid the snow banks, while figurines of skiers and children sledding frolic down the hills.

“You’d be surprised where you can find a lot of these,” noted Day.

Some of the undersized characters are ones that Day used to decorate the Christmas putz with his family, more than half a century ago. Others can be found today in antique shops and thrift stores.

The homes and churches he assembles hold a striking resemblance to earlier ones, and he’s even re-created some of the landmark buildings from this area.

“I’ve tried to re-create some of the homes and churches right here in Dagsboro,” Day pointed out.

To date, Day has built roughly 300 miniature cardboard buildings, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“We have most of the buildings in storage now,” he noted. “They won’t all fit on the display, and each year I get new ideas for different houses and see new buildings that inspire me.”

Since moving to the area with his wife five years ago, Day has put together the train sets and winter scenes three different times. This year’s putz will stay up for two Christmas seasons before Day constructs a new scene with new buildings and characters.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said, “and it’s a great way to bring back a tradition year after year. I enjoy being able to re-create what my family used to do each year.”

The couple has welcomed the public, as well as their own grandchildren, to see the display each year.

“The children love to come in and see the trains,” said Susan Day. “In the past three years, we’ve played Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the [Dagsboro] fire department and pass out gifts. Then, we invite them over to see the trains, and they just love it. This is where they think Santa Clause lives.”

For more information about the Days’ Christmas putz, or to see the extensive winter wonderland, William and Susan Day can be reached at (302) 236-8003.