Santa hands a teddy bear out toward eager hands during a 2012 Santa Train stop. (John Osborne photo)
KINGSPORT — If you’ve been naughty, you’d better straighten up and fly right.
Yep. Santa Claus is coming to town.
For the 71st time in as many years, Santa will ride the rails Saturday — courtesy of a CSX locomotive and 10 railroad cars — twixt Kentucky and downtown Kingsport.
Santa and his helpers will distribute gifts from “The Santa Train” at 14 spots along the 110-mile route, including starting point Shelby, Ky., and ending point Kingsport.
Co-sponsored by CSX Transportation, the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, Food City, and Dignity U Wear, the Santa Train 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.
It has evolved over the years in many ways.
It isn’t unusual to hear folks say they remember when in its early years it delivered the only Christmas gifts some children along its route would receive.
Today the Santa Train is most often cited as a family and community tradition that brings good cheer and the spirit of Christmas to the region. You don’t have to look far at any stop along the way to find two, three or even four generations of a family who’ve “come home” to see Santa and his train.
And yes, there are still gifts — an estimated 17 tons’ worth.
Up until a dozen or so years ago, gifts and goodies were tossed from the Santa Train all along the way. Today, gifts are distributed only at stops — never from the moving train.
Santa Train organizers urge everyone to put safety first and please remember to stay back from the tracks.
Once the train stops moving at each stop, Santa and a few helpers do toss some items from the rear of the train. But many of the gifts are distributed by volunteers who leave the train and mill about among the crowd at each stop. Those volunteers also will move to the rear of the train.
Because of safety concerns, the public is encouraged not to head up the tracks alongside the train.
Joining Santa on the train this year is Kree Harrison, rising country music star and runner-up of “American Idol” season 12.
This will be Harrison’s second time on the Santa Train. She first rode it in 2001 when she was 11 years old.
Harrison is working on her debut album and recently made an appearance on the “CMT Music Awards,” in addition to her Grand Ole Opry debut in June of this year. She announced earlier this month that she will give an acoustic performance with fellow “American Idol” alumna Janelle Arthur outside the old rail depot building, now Cumberland Marketing, before gifts are distributed in Kingsport.
As of Thursday evening, the weather forecast for Saturday along the Santa Train’s route was for mostly cloudy skies with a high in the mid- to upper 40s and a 20 percent chance of rain.