“It’s been greater than I even anticipated,” Skaggs said of the experience. “Seeing all the children ... it was really beautiful. I’m from Eastern Kentucky, so I know what life is like here and the lack of jobs here.”
The Santa Train made its 75th annual run Saturday from Shelby, Ky., to downtown Kingsport. Santa, Skaggs and scores of other volunteers distributed an estimated 17 tons of donated food, clothes and toys along the 110-mile route.
“The Bible tells us it is more blessed to give than to receive,” Skaggs said. “So we’re the ones who got the blessing. They may have gotten the stuffed toys, but we got the blessings.”
Although Skaggs grew up in Eastern Kentucky, he didn’t go to the Santa Train as a child because its route was nowhere near his home.
“It didn’t go that far north,” Skaggs said, going on to joke, “We lived so far back in the woods we didn’t get the Grand Ole Opry until Tuesday night. We hunted toward town.”
Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White Skaggs, spent most of their time Saturday helping Santa toss small plush toys from the train’s rear platform.
But at one stop, Fremont, Va., the couple got off the train, took items into the crowd and visited with some special needs children.
Ricky said being on the ground and in the crowd was a highlight.
“I’m a mix-and-mingler,” he said. “I really loved that.That was really special.”
Sharon described the day helping on the train as “very moving.”
“I was very excited,” she said. “I was laughing a lot at the beginning. And then I got emotional and started to cry, too. On the first stop, it was pitch dark still, and there were people out there with little kids’ faces you could see under the light, you know, and they’re all with their hands up. And I came back inside ... kind of making room for other people to get out there (on the back of the train with Santa). And then all of a sudden I heard something out there ...and I ran out there and they were saying ‘Bye, Santa! Bye, Santa!’ And it just got to me.”
Ricky said Santa is definitely “the star” in the children’s eyes.
“We may have a music (fan base), but nobody can follow Santa,” he said with a laugh. “They would go, ‘Santa, Santa!’ and I would start to throw them something and they’d go ‘Santa, Santa!’ So it’s like, ‘OK, here Santa. They want it from you; they don’t want it from me.’ But we’ve had a marvelous time.It’s so organized. It’s amazing.”
Ricky said the day had made him think a lot about gratefulness and being thankful — and that its appropriate for the train to run close to Thanksgiving.
“I wish everybody could come and see this, because I think there is so much ungratefulness in the world, especially here in America,” he said. “We’re not thankful for our blessings. We don’t think about it. We are blessed and we don’t even know it. Beyond measure.”
He went on to bemoan the troubles seen in the world today.
“There’s just so much division and it’s easy to judge someone that you don’t understand,” Ricky said. “I would hope that ... we start loving people. I’ve got this T-shirt that says, ‘Love God, Love People.’ You really can’t love people without loving God. God is love. When we love Him, we can love people. We need to love ourselves. But we don’t need to love ourselves above other people. We really do need to think about loving other people and showing respect and showing love and honor. When we honor others, we honor God. And there’s a scripture that talks about when you lend to the poor, you lend to the Lord. So, God has a snapshot of this whole day. And He’s pleased with everyone’s efforts. ... I think it pleased God today.”
While getting gifts is the main attraction for a lot of people who come to the Santa Train, for many others it’s first and foremost a tradition. A tradition many have known most of their lives and often have passed down to each succeeding generation.
At Dante, Va., this year the crowd was large as usual. And as usual, many folks stayed on the periphery just watching.
Louella S. Jessee, 86, wasn’t really close enough to catch one of the small plush toys Santa, Skaggs and others were tossing from the back of the train. But she really, really wanted one.
“Please catch me one — you’re tall and young,” she said to a complete stranger. “I have been coming to the Santa Train since they first started it. I’ve only missed it one time in all those years. I just want one little something.”
It took Jessee asking several different people to please get closer and catch her something before a man finally did — without telling her he was going to try.
When he emerged from the crowd and presented her with a small stuffed dog, Jessee hugged his neck and said, “Thank you so much! This is Christmas. This is Christmas.”
Asked if she meant getting the toy or seeing the train, her response was immediate: seeing the train.
“It’s Christmas,” she said.
She lives nearby and grew up going to the train each year. Her father was a railroad worker.
“My family were railroaders,” Jessee said. “And this was our Christmas, really, years and years ago. And you know, all they threw back then was candy.”
Santa Train sponsors this year include CSX, the Kingsport Chamber, Food City, Appalachian Power and Nashville-based nonprofit Soles4Souls.
Buddy Teaster, president and CEO of Soles4Souls, said the organization took over from former Santa Train sponsor Dignity U Wear earlier this year.
Soles4Souls started in 2006 and in the years since has provided 30 million pairs of shoes, as well as several million pounds of clothes, to those in short-term need in 127 countries. Sometimes used clothes are sent to those in Thirld World locales to provide them a way to earn some money. The goal, Teaster said, is to try to think about helping in the short term and in the long term, too. For the Santa Train’s run this year, the organization was able to provide more than 1,000 brand new winter coats for children, largely due to a partnership with Macy’s.