Thousands of people between Shelby, Ky., and Kingsport probably would have answered “yes” Saturday as the Santa Train made its 70th annual run under clear sunny skies and mild temperatures for the better part of the day.
OK, even folks who are passionate about the Santa Train — on the train, on the ground, or somewhere behind the scenes — will tell you straight out that it isn’t meant to “be” Christmas. But pretty much everyone who’s ever seen it, ridden it, given to or received from it in its 70 annual runs will agree: It represents the spirit of Christmas, and for many along its route it heralds the arrival of the holiday season.
It is a beloved local tradition that spans generations.
All along the route each year, the train’s passage draws together families and communities — as much for fellowship as for a chance at some candy or gifts.
This year was no different.
At Clinchco, Va., Tammy Robinette held aloft a handmade sign: “Got Jesus?”
Others in the crowd held signs quoting scripture.
Robinette and the others were not protesting the Santa Train — they were joining in the stop, which is a community event each year.
“About seven years ago, our church (Clinchco Missionary Baptist) decided to help people out — we give out coffee and hot chocolate while everyone is waiting on the train — and, maybe, spread a little bit of The Word.”
At Dante, Va., one-month-old Hazon Friend made his Santa Train debut, accompanied by mom and dad Amanda and John, and grandfather Audie Kiser.
Kiser lives nearby.
Amanda, originally from the Dante area, said she remembers coming to the Santa Train when she was a child, and she and John decided to time this holiday visit from their current home in Fredericksburg to include bringing Hazon to see Santa.
“I used to go when I was younger,” Amanda said. “And so, I wanted to bring him. I thought it would be a good tradition to start.”
Hazon, decked out in his own Santa suit, proved to be a hit with just about anyone with a camera as his dad held him with Santa and the train in the background.
This year, Santa’s best-known travel buddies were again Keifer and Shawna Thompson, who constitute country duo Thompson Square.
Fresh off being named CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, Thompson Square helped distribute gifts along the route and gave a special performance at the final stop on Main Street in downtown Kingsport.
“We were shocked that we got the invitation to come back this year,” Shawna said as the Santa Train headed into its last couple of stops Saturday. “We know it’s a privilege to be on here and be a part of this, so we are ecstatic that we got asked back.”
“They asked us to do it and we had some a fun time last year and really enjoyed it — we’d never been a part of anything like this,” Keifer said. “We jumped at the chance to come back.”
One of the couple’s strongest memories from their time helping Santa happened last year — but still brings Shawna to tears.
“There was a lady that showed up with her small baby,” Shawna said. “It was cold. It was apparent that she couldn’t afford a coat for her baby. She said all she wanted was a blanket for her baby. Santa gave her a blanket and I watched and heard her say ‘Baby, we’ve got our blanket, we can go now.’ That was pretty much it for me. Just to be able to be a part of it and be able to give back. ... Keifer and I have been so blessed the past three years.”
“We’ll come back anytime,” Keifer said.
Co-sponsored by CSX Transportation, the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, Food City, and Dignity U Wear, the Santa Train is a history-steeped tradition that each year heralds the Christmas season’s arrival across the region.
It began as a way for Kingsport’s merchants to say thanks to all the folks along the train’s route for shopping in the Model City. Santa rides the train from Kentucky, through Virginia and into Tennessee, arriving in downtown Kingsport just in time to bring up the rear of the Kingsport Christmas Parade — leading to the train having been called the “longest Christmas parade in the world.”
Santa, Thompson Square, and other “elves” distributed more than 18 tons of donated gifts this year.
Items distributed by Santa and his helpers come from donations from across the nation each year, from both individuals, groups and businesses.
A new sponsor this year was Dignity U Wear, represented on the train by Genelle Thomas.
“It exceeded our expectations for getting people in the Christmas spirit,” Thomas said at mid-day. “It makes you feel that you’re part of a bigger tradition.”
Dignity U Wear is a national nonprofit organization with a mission of providing hope and dignity through the gift of new clothing. The group, based in Jacksonville, Fla., works with manufacturers and retailers to have overstock donated, and provides the goods to more than 300 social service agencies in 30 states, with a focus on assisting children, women in crisis, and veterans.
Dignity U Wear provided goods for 5,000 bags distributed during the Santa Train’s journey this year.
And that included some items some children along the route were specifically looking for,
“At one stop a teenager came up to me and what he asked for was a hat,” Thomas said. “He was somebody obviously in need. He wanted a toboggan. It made me realize the value of what we provided, the practical things.”
“It’s the ultimate gift, to be able to do this,” said Etta Clark, Kingsport Chamber chair and Eastman vice president of communications and public affairs. “I’ve lived in this area all my life and heard about the Santa Train for years. To be able to experience it firsthand is what is so meaningful to me. To see, really see how the community’s combined effort — with Food City, CSX, the Chamber, and Dignity U Wear — really is impacting people. It’s tough out there. The economy is tough and you see a lot of strain on people’s faces. To put a little joy into their lives for this holiday ... it’s always wonderful to give back. And it’s wonderful to make memories. People look back fondly at how it touches them. In all the interactions I’ve had today, there was very much a sincere ‘thank you, for doing this’ and a recognition that people really do care about other people. This entire train is a reflection of that.”
That it takes year-round effort by countless volunteers to make the Santa Train happen is a point recognized by a new honor to be bestowed annually by the train’s sponsors.
Ed Moore, of Food City, is the first recipient of the Santa Train Service Award.
Upon the surprise presentation of the award during a pre-train event Friday evening, Moore said his commitment to the train is driven by a desire to give back to the communities along the train’s 110-mile route.
Choking up a bit, Moore said he was deeply honored and never imagined being given such an award — and was pretty much left speechless.
Everyone else in the room gave Moore a long standing ovation.
Jamie Horton, Santa’s right hand throughout the day and Moore’s chief point person on tracking donations to the train throughout the year, said she couldn’t imagine a better recipient of the award in its first year.
“Everything I know about the Santa Train, I learned from him,” Horton said.
Moore has been involved with the Santa Train for 20 years.
This was Horton’s 15th year riding the train.
She lauded not only Moore, but CSX officials and other sponsors and donors for stepping up in recent years to make sure the train continues.
“I never want to see it end,” Horton said. “I see that we are growing with new sponsorship. I believe the Santa Train tradition will continue. We are not going anywhere.”