Santa Train a return to magic of childhood

More than 60 years ago, 5-year-old twin sisters were among the first generation to experience the Santa Claus Special as it passed near their Trammel, Va., home on its first run.

And more than 40 years ago, a 5-year-old girl saw Santa pass near her home — waving from a caboose — as she played alone in her family’s yard in Elkhorn City, Ky.

On Saturday, all three returned to their roots as the Santa Train, as it is more commonly known, made its 65th run from Shelby, Ky., to downtown Kingsport.

And all three shared the spirit of the occasion with family.

The twins, now North Carolinians, gathered with more than two dozens family members at a stop near their childhood home.

They were among the hundreds of families to do so along the train’s 110-mile route, during which Santa and his helpers distributed more than 15 tons of candy, toys and other gifts at 14 stops.

The little girl who played in Elkhorn City, well, she’s living near Atlanta now: with a husband, some grandchildren — and a Grammy Award, among other honors, for the playing she’s done in the years since.

She’s singer Patty Loveless.

She was Santa’s special guest Saturday, among dozens of “elfs” helping toss gifts from the train’s rear platform at most stops — but stepping off the train for a more personal approach at two: Elkhorn City; and Freemont, Va.

“I love getting out and among people,” Loveless said afterward. “Ever since I started singing years ago — when I was like 12 years old — mingling with people was what I loved. Getting out there on the ground with them, one-on-one, and talking with them, shaking hands and taking pictures — all those things — I enjoy them.”

And the people clearly loved the opportunity to meet Loveless.

At the Freemont stop — where the Santa Train’s ground crew has made a habit of meeting the needs of some special needs children and their families — one young lady seemed more touched by Loveless’ touch than the gifts she received.

“I touched Patty Loveless,” the girl said in a childlike whisper as an adult led her out of the crowd gathered around Loveless. “Patty Loveless touched me.”

There is one thing Loveless would like to change about the experiences: “I just wish we had more time.”

Loveless, who’s ridden the Santa Train twice before (1999 and 2002), made it a family affair this year. Also aboard were her husband, two sisters, and a brother-in-law.

“It is a real family tradition,” Loveless said of the Santa Train’s place as a community touchstone across the three-state region and multiple generations it spans.

“There are members of my family who remember going to the Santa Train,” she said.

Loveless, who turned 50 this past January, said her first memory of the Santa Train is seeing Santa from her own yard in Elkhorn City when she was about 6 years old.

“I did see Santa on the back of the train, right across the river I was playing out in the yard and next thing I know Santa was waving on the caboose. I was absolutely sure that’s what I saw. … I thought ‘I can’t believe this.’ I was afraid to tell any of my family because I thought they’d think I was making it up or imagining things.”

The chance to return to the region is one reason Loveless says she likes riding the train.

The chance to look into the eyes of all those children along the route is another.

“I just love children,” Loveless said. “It’s so enjoyable to see their belief. It’s like they’re out there with a dream that’s come true — seeing Santa. It just warms my heart to see the little ones out there. It makes me wish I had hundreds more toys to throw out to them.”

Donations come in for the Santa Train year-round through its three sponsors: CSX Transporation; The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce; and Food City. This year, donations came from at least 38 states.

After riding the Santa Train in 1999, Loveless co-wrote the song “Santa Train.”

“It was the whole experience of my first ride,” Loveless said of the song.

As Loveless helped toss gifts from the Santa Train at St. Paul, Va., Saturday, twin sisters Sue Mann and Lou Burgess, 70, looked on from the edge of the crowd. With them were Mann’s husband Henry and the twins’ niece, Delores Milam, 73.

Braving the crowd for a closer look at Santa and Loveless — and for a better chance of catching something being tossed — were about two dozen relatives of the four.

Milam lives nearby and comes to see the Santa Train every year.

She’d been encouraging her aunts, who witnessed the Santa Train’s first trek through the region, to come back and see it again.

“I called them just as soon as I saw this year’s Santa Train date listed in the news,” Milam said, adding that another relative had in recent years sent the Manns a postcard featuring the train.

Burgess needed little encouragement — seeing the train again already was a goal.

“I said ‘I’m going if I have to go by myself,’” said Burgess. “I was going to come alone … but they came, too. I’ve always wanted to see it one more time.”

The twins said they regularly went to see the Santa Train from that first year until they were 12.

Saturday was the first time back for Henry and Sue in 50 years.

“We came back in 1957, when our daughter was 16 months old and we came back to Trammel,” Henry said. “That’s the last time we’d been back until now.”

A granddaughter of the Manns was among children who performed clogging routines before the train’s arrival in St. Paul on Saturday.

Milam said that sense of community is what keeps people coming back year after year.

Burgess and the Manns said they’d probably visit a future Santa Train — “If we’re able.”

Back on board the train, Loveless told CSX, Chamber and Food City representatives she’ll be more than happy to return in future years.

The Santa Train began in the 1940s as a way to say thanks to people along the route for patronizing Kingsport businesses. Some still refer to Santa ’s trip from Kentucky, which ends with his bringing up the rear of the parade, as “the world’s longest Christmas parade.”

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