KINGSPORT — The 78th annual Santa Train will be a first, adding a new twist to the regional tradition’s storied history.

CSX and its Santa Train partners have an alternative plan for this year’s event in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and health guidelines regarding public gatherings.

Each year since 1943, the Santa Train has delivered gifts to folks of all ages between Southeastern Kentucky and downtown Kingsport. Since 2001, gifts have been distributed only at specific stops along the train’s 110-mile route. And each of those stops typically draws hundreds of people who gather well ahead of the train’s arrival and press against its rear platform and often spread down the tracks several train car lengths after the train comes to a stop. Santa tosses soft items from the rear platform. And his helpers exit the train at each stop to walk among the crowds. They do so to hand out heftier gifts that can’t safely be thrown — and also to make the event a more personal experience.

Santa Train sponsors don’t want to encourage those kinds of crowds this year. So Santa won’t be riding the rails.

The giving spirit Santa usually brings by train still will appear as usual. But instead of at stops along the CSX tracks twixt here and Shelby, Kentucky, members of Team Santa Train will distribute gifts at key Food City locations near the train’s usual route.

These drive-thru pickup events will take place on the day the Santa Train would usually run: the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year Thanksgiving will be Nov. 26. That means the 78th annual Santa Train event will be Saturday, Nov. 21.

The decision to go “off track” this year was made after carefully monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic and reviewing the CDC’s recommendations for hosting events in 2020, sponsors said.

“The health and safety of our employees, volunteers, attendees and the community is always our top priority when we are planning the Santa Train. We decided it was in the best interests of all parties to rethink this year’s event amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bryan Tucker, vice president of Corporate Communications at CSX. “We worked closely with our partners and are pleased to be able to provide a safe alternative to the traditional Santa Train that will bring joy and lift spirits during this challenging time.”

This year, Team Santa Train will deliver Santa’s gifts to select Food City locations, where attendees can pick up gifts from their cars to minimize physical contact.

Other aspects of the event, including contests and possible special guest appearances, will be moved to an online platform.

“We’ve seen firsthand how special the Santa Train is to this community, and we couldn’t be more excited to continue this event safely this year,” said Raymond Stockard, store manager of the North Eastman Road Food City in Kingsport. “Our goal every year is to usher in the holiday season in Appalachia, and it’s now more important than ever that we honor that commitment for these families. All of us at Food City are proud to be a part of this wonderful tradition, and we are already looking forward to seeing everyone from select storefronts along the Santa Train route this fall.”

The Santa Train is sponsored by CSX, Food City, Appalachian Power, Soles4Souls and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

“We would not be able to plan a reimagined Santa Train event without each sponsor’s input, encouragement and support,” said John Kitchens, corporate citizenship director at CSX. “We are especially grateful to Food City for offering their stores as this year’s ‘stops’ along the route.”

More information about the event and gift pickup sites will be announced on the Santa Train’s social media pages. Attendees along the route can follow @SantaTrain on Facebook for periodic updates.