Choo-choo: It’s the Santa Train!

Santa Train 2Last week one of our readers suggested we do a little research about the Santa Train.  I had no knowledge of this train and the research was fun to get into.  There are lots of Christmas trains and Santa Expresses all around the U.S. but there is only one true Santa Train.  That train is the one that travels each year from Shelby, KY to Kingsport, TN on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Santa TrainThe “Santa Special” started in 1943 as a way for a group of Kingsport businessmen to show appreciation for the patronage of all the coal workers throughout the region.  The train has made an annual journey every year since.  In those early years during WWII the train was most likely the only sign of Christmas and source of gifts for those in the remote area.  Over the years the size and scope of the train has continued to grow.  Today the train follows a 110-mile route from Kentucky, through Virginia, and ending in Tennessee. The train passes through as many as 30 towns along the way and makes about 14 stops.  The train hauls more than 15 tons of goodies and supplies valued at as much as $500,000.  There are gifts, toys, stuffed animals, games, hats, gloves, mittens, and more clothes.  Candy, crackers, cookies, popcorn, and gum also come aboard the train.  At each stop volunteers hop off the train and hand out bags of items packed based on the age of the children.  Soft items and candy are tossed by Santa and friends at the back of train.  Crowds as large as 1,000 gather around the tracks in anticipation of the arrival of the train.  These gifts might be the only Christmas a child in Appalachia will see.  Read a great account of one family at the train on the MTSU student news site Sidelines.

Santa Train 3The train takes donations from anyone at anytime.  You can mail handmade items, monetary gifts, or other toys to the Train.  Find all the details on the official website for Team Santa Train.  Private donors supplement the corporate sponsorships from CSX railroad, Food City, Dignity U Wear, and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.  The Chamber is the lead sponsor and source of all the details for the train and continues to make improvements to the whole experience.  In recent years they have added celebrity volunteers to the train like Allison Krauss, The Judds, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt, Kathy Mattea, and, in 2012, Thompson Square.  A $5,000 scholarship is awarded in connection with the train to a high school senior from one of the schools along the train’s route.  The volunteers gathered by the Chamber tell all that they are the true gift recipients through the joy and happiness of helping do more for others with less.  That’s the true spirit of Christmas after all isn’t it?  Watch this video showing some of their joy.


Miniatur Wunderland and the Hamburg Christmas Market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s the time of year when friends ask “Where are you vacationing this summer?” as openers of conversations.  The answer one of my students gave me this week was “Hamburg, Germany.”  He is a big model railroading enthusiast, and Hamburg has the world’s largest model railroad, Miniatur Wunderland.  One of my favorite Christmas topics is train gardens, but I had not heard of this miraculous sight.  Right now, there are eight unique areas with over 13,000 meters of track with nearly 1,000 trains.  The current design requires 46 computers and over 230 employees.  I am including a video of the trains with a link to the website.

Although the Miniatur Wunderland does not advertise any specific Christmas trains or train activities, I learned that Germany is proud of its traditional Christmas Markets, and Hamburg’s especially interesting.  Opening this year on November 25, the event is hosted by world-famous Roncalli Circus performers.  Each evening, Santa visits, arriving on a sleigh in the sky. I watched a video, and I can’t exactly figure out how Santa is flying, but it’s quite the spectacle.

The market advertises beautiful hand-crafted gifts, including traditional German Aachen Spice Cookies.  I looked up a recipe, and I am suggesting that Jeremy and I will need to experiment with the cookies.  I suspect that they will be close to a molasses/gingerbread taste.  We’re going to have to find a German baker who will guide us through the process, and I have one of my mom’s friends in mind.



National Christmas Tree Railroad–Worth the visit

National Tree DaytimeThe weather outside was frightful, especially in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania where Roger and I had planned to spend our Christmas week.  Road trip postponed, Roger surprised me with a visit to Washington, D.C. to see the Birds of Paradise exhibit at the National Geographic Museum.  Knowing we would be just blocks from the White House, I orchestrated a quick side trip to see the National Christmas Tree.

Jeremy and I talked about the National Tree several times on The Yule Log last year, including this update about the replacement tree that Jeremy wrote last May. That tree did not survive, and another (the fifth in the National Tree history) was planted in late October. The last time I saw the tree was in the late 1960’s.

By day, the tree was underwhelming, but that didn’t stop crowds of visitors.  I was distracted by a study of the Christmas Pathway of Peace, where I examined, with my crafter’s eye, each of the state ornament offerings.  New York is hands-down my favorite, and I am including a link to all of the ornaments of the state trees so you can see them yourself.  On the website they’re much prettier.  In person, they were a little worse for wear from all the holiday wind, rain and snow. (The photos here are of New York’s tree and Maine’s tree–for our friend Denise in Maine.)New YorkMaine

Roger was attracted to the enormous train garden, which did not exist during my childhood visit.  This is the 19th anniversary of the Christmas Tree Railroad, lovingly created and maintained by a local group of train enthusiasts, has nine train loops, three trolleys, three villages, and over a thousand feet of track.  Children especially were glued to the railing, watching the trains, and we noticed that quite a few visitors had thrown change, mostly pennies, into the open cars of the train.  The brainchild of a local man, Bill Bucshmeier, the organization how has major sponsors and is now incorporated as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt corporation. The group works with the National Park Service,  coordinating the display each year. They also hold off-season meetings and work groups where new ideas are discussed and goals are established for the upcoming year.

If you would like to make a donation to the National Christmas Tree Railroad, LLC or would like to become a member, send an email to  The website has great photos and a detailed history of the train garden and the tree.

Meanwhile, I’m including another photo, also taken today, of Kaitlin Fleagle and Logan Pomeroy, two Linganore alums.  They were at the tree just a few hours after I was, and, clearly, the tree is meant to be seen at night (which you can do until January 1, 2013).  Thank you for the photo, Kaitlin!


Snow Train to Leavenworth–not the prison

Yesterday, Jeremy asked me about my Christmas bucket list.  If you’ve watched enough 1930’s and 40’s movies, you will remember that the high society New Yorkers often took the snow train to Vermont for weekend getaways, skiing and romance.  That would be #1 on my bucket list.  Amtrack recently re-instated the New York/Vermont snow train, and one day I hope to be on it.

On the West Coast, though, one Snow Train goes from Seattle, Washington to Leavenworth, Washington each of four weekends in December.  Leavenworth, at the base of the Cascade mountains, was once a thriving lumber town.  When the lucrative timber industry dried up in the 1960’s, the residents made a decision to do a makeover of their town, transforming it into a Bavarian village and catering to tourists.  Strangely, it worked!

At Christmas, Leavenworth goes all out, and the Snow Train ($169 per person) features breakfast, Santa, entertainment, a day in the village, the tree lighting and caroling and then dinner on the return train.  It sounds a little like a packaged Christmas, but I imagine that many families make it their tradition.

Countdown Podcast #3: 349 Days to Go!

Click on the link to hear us- Yule Log 349 to go

This week our discussion focuses on crafts you can make with the Christmas cards you received this year.  We also share some thoughts on cards in general and how our site and podcasts are catching on.  Check out the links and photos below for more details on the card crafts mentioned tonight.  Here’s the link for more information about the program at St. Jude’s- recycled card program.  Here are links to the individual crafts:

Directions for 20-point Star (time-consuming but pretty); YouTube Video of 8-point Star (easy to make–accuracy required); Simple Treat or Gift Boxes (addictive and easy enough for children); Gift Card Envelopes.  Martha Stewart’s ornaments (not pictured) are the traditional ball shape made with round circles of Christmas cards.  This was fun to make, but the dogs thought it was a toy.  No photo, but here’s the link to her directions.


Train fever

Although model railroading enthusiasts are busy year-round, train gardens are often associated with the Christmas season and are a delight for families at the holidays.  The Four-County Society of Model Engineers set up a seasonal display at the West Friendship Fire Hall for four weeks—just a half-mile away—but Roger and I attended yesterday, in the last 30 minutes of the event.  Next year, we’ll know better.  Not only was it still beautiful, I was blown away by how much model railroading has advanced in the past 10 years. (Roger’s photo is of one of the modules–looks amazingly realistic!)

My memory of our model train and the Christmas season is of the four of us children perched at the top of the stairs with a red ribbon tied across the top railing like police barricade tape.  My dad, awake but not alert, would go downstairs alone, turn on the train and lights on the tree, and then come back upstairs to report that Santa had not arrived and we could all go back to bed.

Once released, we would fall over each other to get to the living room and the wondrous sight of the presents, stacked artfully under the tree, with the HO scale train chugging and whistling through tunnels of presents—no special houses, trees, or snow.  Just train–a single engine, a few cars, and a caboose on an oval track. Magical.

When we grew up, it was my great delight to give my brother, who had inherited the train, some houses and cars to make an imaginary town.  Around November, I was a frequent visitor to the model railroading shop in Mt. Airy, MD.  Later, my sons had a Lionel train, but it’s out of commission because I don’t really understand the whole model train thing. I suspect I have not taken very good care of this small treasure.

At the fire hall, Roger began talking to the club members like they were old friends.  How did I not know that he was a teenage model railroading geek?  We watched the men (and a few women) work the trains along the tracks, laid out in modules.  The trains are now run using a digital connection that looks a lot like a grocery scanner connected to a phone jack.

All this train information has led me to quiz my brother about his train set, call my mother about its origin and I plan to bug my father’s sister, Carol (expect the call soon, Aunt Carol), to learn more about the origin of my father’s Märklin train.

You’ll hear and read much more about trains.  We’ll be podcasting and writing throughout the year.  The Great Scale Model Train show is at the Timonium Fairgrounds February 4  – 5, and I hope to be there!  Meanwhile, if you have photos of trains and the Christmas season, send them to The Yule Log so we can admire and share.