On Saturday, the train will make its 77th annual 110-mile trek from Shelby, Kentucky, to downtown Kingsport, distributing gifts to crowds at 12 stops along the way.
The Santa Train is sponsored by CSX, Appalachian Power, Food City, Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and Soles4Souls.
Santa’s special guest this year is singer Marty Stuart.
Food City provided a celebration dinner with door prizes for all participants following the packing party.
The train itself spent Wednesday evening in the CSX yard off Lincoln Street. The items packed by the volunteers will be loaded on the train and it will depart for Kentucky today.
Among those gathered for the packing party Wednesday were some longtime participants, including Ann Holtzclaw, and 20 or so members of the Mann family.
The Mann family, whose roots are in Dungannon, Virginia, had members of five generations present. Two young brothers, Gabe and Carter Mann, were at the packing for the first time — working alongside their aunt Dana and other family members as their aunt Ruth Collins kept an eye on everyone. “This just means the world to our family,” Dana said. “And we’re glad to have the next generations getting involved to carry on what is for us a family tradition.”
Holtzclaw grew up in Nora, Virginia.
“It’s a little wide place in the road, but it was the most wonderful childhood place it could be to live,” Holtzclaw said.
One of nine siblings, Holtzclaw said her family moved to Nora when she was five. That year marked her first visit to the Santa Train as it made a short stop there. She kept going each year until she married and left home. But her memories of the Santa Train didn’t fade.
“It was always a big deal for us,” Holtzclaw said. “It was a big treat for us to go to the Santa Train. It was something we looked forward to every year. Some Christmases, that was ‘Santa’ for us. Of course, we knew the real meaning of Christmas. But, you know, for a child (Santa) is a big part of Christmas.
Holtzclaw remembers a neighbor who would always encourage all the children to make sure and go down to greet the Santa Train, then welcome them into her home nearby for hot chocolate.
“It was always such a delight,” Holtzclaw said. “It was something everybody looked forward to. (The train) wasn’t just for kids. The adults would go, too — but they’d stand off and let the kids get the goodies from the train.”
Helping pack food bags for this year’s train reminded Holtzclaw how times have changed in the “goodies” department. This year’s foodstuffs include everything from ramen noodles to individual snack packs of pickles to single-sized portions of instant mashed potatoes. There are also plenty of more traditional sweets and snacks, like Moon Pies and potato chips.
“Back then, we got combs, pencils, advertising Dobyns-Taylor in Kingsport and the First National Bank in Kingsport,” Holtzclaw said. “And at that time I didn’t even know where Kingsport was. For a child that grows up poor, Christmas is limited as far as gifts. But we had the important things. We had family and love and friends. And those are the things that really matter. But the Santa Train was a big highlight of all our Christmases. I was fascinated by Santa. As far as sweets, back then we got hard candies. Moon Pies? If I’d gotten a Moon Pie from the Santa Train that would have been a big thing.”
A second standout memory involves another neighbor.
“Everybody wanted to be the first one there,” Holtzclaw said of the spot where the Santa Train would briefly stop at Nora. “One year I thought I was going to be the first one.” But when she arrived at the spot, after getting up and going earlier than her older brothers, young Ann heard a cough coming from the little shed that served as a waiting room for passengers who used the passing trains for transportation to places like Kingsport.
“I said, ‘Who’s there?’ “ Holtzclaw said.
“It’s me,” called a woman who Holtzclaw recognized as an older lady who walked with a limp and lived at least a couple of miles from the railroad tracks.
Over the years Holtzclaw has gone back to Nora to see the Santa Train, first taking her children, then later her grandchildren.
It always stirs her heart, but the first time with her children was especially emotional.
“As soon as I heard the train rolling in the distance, I couldn’t do anything but stand there and weep,” Holtzclaw said. “It was just such an exciting time for me.”
Holtzclaw said she’s been volunteering to help pack the train’s cargo for 18 years and it all started when she saw Ed Moore, who for years was Food City’s point man for the Santa Train. Holtzclaw said she’s proud of all the train’s sponsors, and all the individuals who help keep the tradition and spirit of the Santa Train alive.
“I thanked him for all he was doing for the Santa Train, to keep it going year after year,” Holtzclaw said. “I told him my thanks were coming from having been a recipient of the train when I was growing up in Nora. He just smiled the whole time I was talking. And then he asked if I’d like to help load the train. I said yes and I’ve come every year since. I just feel like it’s a way for me to give back for what was given to me and my family and friends, growing up in a little town over there that the Santa Train meant so much to. I still get excited when November rolls around. I’m ready.“