Scott Hollifield's Blast from the Past: Riding the rails with Santa

Note: Please enjoy your leftover Thanksgiving turkey and this slightly edited, warmed-over column first published back in 2000, when the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad train now called the Polar Express was known as the Santa Express and hauled a cargo of youngsters, parents and grandparents on a two-hour holiday-themed excursion with a giant red-nose reindeer and a plump snowman who may or may not have been Rudolph and Frosty, depending on how one interprets this nation’s trademark laws.

My 4-year-old daughter and I rode the Santa Express, skipping work and preschool to build precious Christmas memories that will last a lifetime.

“Wasn’t that a great train trip we took last week?” I asked her after the ride, still charmed by the clickety clack of the rails and softness of Rudolph’s synthetic fur.

“When you talk, Daddy, I can’t hear ‘Rugrats’ on TV.”

“Let’s go again next year, OK sweetheart?”

“I wanna watch ‘Rugrats.’”

I’m not a railroad aficionado. I don’t have an engineer’s cap or an elaborate model railroad layout in my basement. Most of what I know about trains comes from songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Wreck of the Old 97.” Most trains, I assumed from those lyrics, carry cigar-chomping land barons past prisons housing men who shot other men in Reno just to watch them die, then the locomotives lose their brakes on steep grades and become smoking heaps of twisted scrap metal.

Before the Santa Express excursion, I had ridden two trains as a youngster. The first was Tweetsie Railroad, the replica Old West steam engine that, in the pre-politically correct days of the early 1970s, featured a mid-trip attack by whooping “Indians.” The implied scalpings were thwarted by gun-toting cowboys, much to the delight of the trainload of wide-eyed future NRA members.

The second trip came later in elementary school when, to the best of my recollection, we went somewhere on a bus, boarded some kind of train, rode somewhere else, ate a sack lunch and returned to the bus. That was about it, except we discovered that the toilet in train car’s tiny bathroom emptied directly onto the tracks in full view of the person pulling the handle, which led to the flushing of items such as pennies, combs and sack-lunch oranges.

Though no stereotypical Indians threatened to scalp us and the tracks weren’t visible when the toilet flushed, the Santa Express was an entertaining trip. Santa, who we saw arrive in a non-reindeer powered Buick during the pre-boarding portion of the trip, visited our passenger car and talked individually with each child. Despite his earlier choice of transportation, this Santa was top-shelf Kris Kringle material – real beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes.

Santa’s helper was an attractive blonde woman who was far from elf-like in every way.

“That’s Santa’s wife,” my daughter whispered as they moved down the aisle.

“Maybe his third wife,” I said.

Roaming guitarists and fiddlers played Christmas carols, but perhaps the most popular pair on the trip were TV veterans Rudolph and Frosty, or their costumed counterparts with oversized heads. The children mobbed them in a Beatles-like frenzy.

Rudolph and Frosty posed for pictures and communicated solely through hand gestures and head nods, the universal language of frustrated actors trapped in a seasonal, minimum-wage gig.

Aside from licking the frost off the picnic tables outside the train station, my daughter was on her best behavior throughout, apparently due to the proximity of Santa and the importance of his impending late-night visit.

“I liked Rudolph the best,” my daughter said after the trip was over and before ‘Rugrats’ would erase it entirely from her mind. “What did you like, Daddy?”

“I thought Santa’s wife was OK,” I said. “But don’t say anything to Santa. I don’t want to end up on the naughty list again.”

Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist. Contact him at

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