How does your garden grow? Christmas: Tom Hooper's flourishes every winter with Lionel trains, green-dyed sawdust and the perfume of sauerkraut over it all.

December 29, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

When he was a boy, Tom Hooper awoke every Christmas morning to the sound of a Lionel train whistle, the sight of a decorated tree and the smell of sawdust and sauerkraut.

He did again this year.

Now a medical executive and a father of two, Hooper has kept a Baltimore family tradition alive. Every fall, he begins assembling a Christmas garden in the living room of his home.

There was a time when many of the homes in East and South Baltimore displayed Christmas gardens -- villages assembled with miniature cardboard homes, tiny lead figurines and toy train sets.

"You don't find too many people who do it anymore," he says. "It's just a lot of work with today's schedules."

Hooper, the vice president of development at Mercy Hospital, has become something of a Christmas garden expert, even giving talks on the subject.

He says the custom began in Germany and arrived in Baltimore, as well as York and Lancaster, Pa., with the arrival of German immigrants in the 19th century.

"My mother can remember as a child having one -- no trains, just villages," Hooper says. "It seems to me they must have had what I call Nativity scenes gone amok."

But Hooper says it was his father, Leo, who turned a Christmas tradition into a work of family art.

Every fall, Leo Hooper told his children -- Tom and two sisters -- that the washing machine had overflowed and they were forbidden to head down to the cellar. And every year -- at least for an "embarrassingly long" time -- Tom and his sisters bought his story.

His father wasn't fixing the washer, of course. He was assembling that year's Christmas garden atop an 8-by-8-foot platform.

Leo Hooper rigged the trains with an automatic timer. So at 6 o'clock on Christmas morning, Tom would wake to the clack of a Lionel train and run downstairs to see the blinking lights.

That's not all he would see. The Christmas tree had presents waiting for him; his parents had been awake most of the night decorating it.

"It is so neat on Christmas morning to have all that surprise," Tom Hooper says.

And so he did the same thing -- right down to using the overflowing washing machine ruse -- when his own children, Brian and Jenia, were small.

"They fell for it, too," he says, laughing.

The design of Hooper's Christmas garden changes each year. This season's version contains three platforms, five trains (including one near the ceiling), 300 lead figurines, a town square water fountain and -- new this year -- a miniature Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. He began working on it in October.

"To me, it's not about the trains, it's about the village," Hooper says.

He scours antiques shops and flea markets for new pieces and houses. Lead figurines that once cost a dime at Hutzler Bros. department store, now go for $25 each.

L "I consider myself an artist in sawdust," he says, laughing.

Oh, yes, the sawdust. There's a story behind that, too. Years ago, Hooper says, farmers scraped moss from area hillsides and sold it in bushel baskets for use in Christmas gardens. Later, florists began selling sawdust dyed green, but you can't find that much anymore.

"I had to dye my own again," Hooper says. "I went to Home Depot and bought the sawdust -- the kid there couldn't figure out what I wanted with all of it -- then came home and dyed it in a big tub."

Is all the fuss worth it? Brian and Jenia say it is. They're already vTC planning their own Christmas gardens. Jenia likes wiring the lights, while Brian, who plans to be a firefighter, envisions designing a fire department motif.

This past Christmas morning, the Hoopers enjoyed another family tradition, too.

"If you're from out of town, you think Christmas is the smell of holly berries," Hooper says. "In Baltimore it's the smell of wet sawdust and a pot of sauerkraut. We eat sauerkraut and turkey for Christmas. It's great."

There is at least one drawback to building a Christmas garden. After the big day of Dec. 25 comes and goes, the display eventually must come down.

Or maybe not.

"It's something you put off forever," Hooper says. "It's been known to still be up at Easter. We put eggs on it."

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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