That, apparently, is the way folks along CSX’s rail line between Shelby, Kentucky, and downtown Kingsport were looking at things on Saturday as the Santa Train made its 77th annual run along that 110-mile route. Singer Marty Stuart was Santa’s special guest and was joined by members of his band in helping Santa and other “elves” on the train distribute toys, foodstuffs, and winter clothing to children and adults along the way.
The Santa Train is sponsored by CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls and the Kingsport Chamber. Each year it distributes an estimated 15 tons of gifts to thousands of people.
At lunchtime Saturday, with two-thirds of the day’s stops under his belt, Stuart was asked what was his favorite part of his first ride on the Santa Train.
“The faces of the people,” Stuart said. “The faces of the kids. And those little hands reaching up. That gets my heart.”
Turns out it wasn’t just Stuart’s first ride on the Santa Train. It was his first train ride ever. Surprising, considering the lifelong connection he feels to trains.
“I’m a lifelong train buff,” Stuart said. “I’ve written songs about trains. The first song I wrote in my life was about a train. Train tracks ran behind our house in Mississippi. I’ve never lived in a house where I couldn’t hear a train. But this is my first train ride.”
What were his impressions after, at that point, about six hours on the Santa Train?
“This event is legendary,” Stuart said. “But it’s one of those kinds of things you really can’t understand until you come and be a part of it. I had a sense from the minute we pulled out that I’d love it. And I have. I’ve loved every second of this.”
Stuart said that love stemmed from the simple focus of the Santa Train: to give to people.
“Give, give, give!” Stuart said. “The life I live is a fantasy life. We live in an ivory tower and hillbilly buses, wearing cool clothes and hear people clapping. But that’s real life back there (at the Santa Train’s stops). And so, to be able to give, give, give is a wonderful thing.”
Stuart said at the train’s first stop it was still dark out, and other workers on the train were handing him gifts to give to the people crowded around the rear of the train.
“It was like being in a dream,” Stuart said. “It was just wonderful, a wonderful dream to be a part of.”
After the train’s last stop, as it headed into Kingsport, Santa spoke with reporters on the back of the train. This year that was once again the Clinchfield 100, which served as Santa’s car on the train from 1953 until 1983. It has over the past few years been restored by members of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society.
Santa said he again was impressed this year by what he’s seen as a growing “sharing” trend in recent years among the crowds of adults and children at the Santa Train’s stops.
“I saw it even more this year,” Santa said. “When you’re trying to get a toy to a specific child out there ... and the next person over gets it instead, they know it was meant for their neighbor and hand it off. It’s truly heartwarming.”
And having his former ride back?
“I’m so thankful we have people like the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society spending their time and money to preserve history for our children,” Santa said.