43. All Aboard the Polar Express

43. All Aboard the Polar Express

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

All Aboard the Polar Express

“Well ya comin’?” asked the conductor. “Where?” replied the boy. “To the North Pole, of course! This is the Polar Express!”

~The Conductor, The Polar Express

It’s five o’clock and I finish off my elf trappings by making my cheeks pink with my lipstick and sticking a candy cane tattoo on each. Mine is not the wackiest elf costume on the block.

In fact if you were to rate it with ten being the craziest, mine would probably be a one. But it fits me. After all, as I tell my passengers on the Polar Express, I work in the stables at the North Pole. You can’t be fancy when you’re shoveling reindeer you-know-what. That always makes the kids giggle.

Bob, my trainman husband, has already donned his uniform. He looks quite handsome in it and the brass buttons we added to the vest and jacket have really set it off. He tops it off with the special hat he’s earned with all of his volunteer hours on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

I grab my large holiday bag and check to be sure I have crayons and the reindeer games I’ve printed out as well as a roll of paper towels. The towels are for wiping up the hot chocolate drips and spills that might occur in the excitement of visiting the North Pole. They also help to wipe off the windows of the train when they begin to steam up from all the eager little children whose one wish is to see the big guy in red.

Arriving at the train yard, I park my car, say a silent prayer of thanks that it’s dark early and no one saw me driving in costume, and scurry off to check in for my assigned car. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad becomes The Polar Express for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is quite a transformation.

I join the other elves in my car and we ready everything for the storytelling, the hot chocolate and cookie partaking, and all the fun and games along the way. It isn’t long before our car begins to fill with kids. Their eager voices and spirited Christmas energy are what fuels an elf for the adventure ahead. Along with two assistant elves and an elf in charge of the hot chocolate and cookies, I keep the energetic little ones — and big ones — entertained with reindeer games and jokes as we wait for all to board and be seated. Most, including the adults, are wearing their pajamas. It is quite a flannel sleepwear fashion show.

Our trainman in the car informs us that all are aboard and the conductor has given the signal for the train to begin moving forward to the North Pole. As a storyteller it is my job to get everyone’s attention and introduce the other elves before beginning to read the story written by Chris Van Allsburg — The Polar Express. During the telling, the assistant elves and trainman add sound effects, illustrations, and lots of cheering.

Meanwhile back in a little cubbyhole, our server elf is pouring hot chocolate into cups, adding lids, and wrapping packaged cookies (straight from Mrs. Claus’s oven) with napkins. As soon as the story is finished, they will be handed out.

Between the refreshments and our arrival at the North Pole, we break out in song, but soon the lights in the car begin to dim. It’s the signal that we’re getting close. All the children are asked to move to one side of the car and the adults to the other as the “Northern Lights” begin to give the landscape a festive glow.

“We’re here! The North Pole!” I announce with glee. We pass the hobo warming himself by the fire and then we see them — the North Pole elves! They are surrounded by thousands of Christmas lights and displays. There’s Frosty and the Gingerbread Man and Rudolph (who said he could stay up late?) and Mr. and Mrs. Jack Frost with their dog, Snowflake! We pass the train cars that are holding all the gifts that Santa will deliver on Christmas Eve. As the train pulls through so that all the cars get a view, I point out the Winking Lizard, the watering hole for the North Pole elves.

We stop and wait a few minutes and sure enough, there’s Santa! His sleigh is being pulled by a smaller version of the Polar Express and next to him sits Mrs. Claus. Is that a little flour on her nose from all her baking?

It is at this point that all the hours of volunteering become worth it. There is nothing so special as the faces of little ones who are magically transported to the North Pole. Faces pressed against the windows are softly lit by the glow of the Christmas lights. I get to relive my own wonder as a child at all that was magical about the season. But our adventure isn’t over yet.

As the Polar Express pulls away from the North Pole there is a distant jingle of bells. The lights in our train car shine brightly now and everyone has returned to their seats. We sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and suddenly the door to our train car opens and there he is himself — the man in the red suit trimmed in white and ho-ho-ho-ing as he is welcomed with squeals of delight.

Santa makes his way through the car, stopping to hear the wishes of all the little ones. As he greets each child, I hand him a sleigh bell and soon the whole train car is alive with jingle bells. The car is full of believers, since only a believer can hear the bells jingle.

Upon Santa’s departure, we of course must sing a chorus or two of “Jingle Bells.” Then it is on to “The Funky Chicken,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and other popular requests. Some nights there is even a fashion show of pajama ensembles.

Little ones and some big ones begin to fade and eyelids flutter on the ride home. As we pull into the station, coats are gathered, little ones hoisted in arms, and thank-you’s ring out all around.

When the last passenger has left, elves get busy cleaning up the train car for the next night’s run. It’s been a great night as always and the memories will last a lifetime for the children. The memories for the volunteer elves will last a lifetime as well.

~Karen Robbins

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