Santa Riding a Train

Santa train from kingston archives

Over the many years that Santa has come down through the mountains on the Santa Train, thousands of people, young and old, have been there as Santa waved and wished them a Merry Christmas. My thoughts tell me first that many were the poor people of Appalachia, come to enjoy just a bit of happiness in a world racked with abject poverty; and, my thoughts go back to us, a poor family with little to enjoy, materially, at Christmastime, save the candy and the toys and prizes that Santa threw us from his train.

There can be no doubt that the founders of the Train had those impoverished children in mind, maybe foremost in their minds. The founders, however, also saw a broader mission: To be the  harbinger of a spirit that would prevail among all, young and old, poor and affluent, through the month-long season; a spirit of sharing and caring and of peace on Earth, Goodwill to men.

Oh yes, that spirit would foment good sales for merchants along the railroad’s path through villages and towns, as the spirit of Christmas and giving fostered a gleeful purchasing spree all up and down the line.

Yet, we remember, don’t we? Not the commercial side of the moment and not what we gave or received on any of those many Christmas mornings. When we hear that the train is going to make another run, we remember that as those of us who got to rush out behind the train and gather the bounty in Santa’s wake are blessed with a very special memory of a time most Americans have only read about but never, ever got to enjoy firsthand.

Thank goodness that the special time goes on and the Train still runs and Santa’s helpers still care.

—David Templeton

Since 1943 a train loaded with toys, candy, and Santa has made it way from Kentucky through Virgina and ended it’s journey in Kingsport, Tennessee.

The Santa Special was started as a way to give a bit of Christmas to impoverished children who lived along the route as well as thank folks for shopping in Kingsport. In recent years celebrities have tagged along to help spread Christmas Cheer.

The Santa Train has become a tradition for many families. It’s not unusual for several generations of the same family to take part in the tradition. Since the Santa Train makes it’s run the weekend before Thanksgiving it’s a natural start to the Christmas Season for many.

Last night’s video: Away in a Manger | Traditional Appalachian Version & History of Song.


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  • Reply
    December 22, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    I had in years past heard about the Santa Train, but thought it had stopped sometime back. That is just the sweetest story of so many blessing others and that it still runs through the mountains.
    Merry Christmas to all!

  • Reply
    Sandra Henderson
    December 22, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    I’ve seen in a movie(s) or documentaries through the years, clips of people walking to train tracks and kids scrambling to get candy and Gifts thrown by Santa in coal mining towns or hardship areas…
    Thanks for reminding us of this tradition
    Merry Christmas!
    Love hearing all your songs also

  • Reply
    Denise R
    December 22, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    Where we live at there is still a Santa Train that rolls through our part of the country. While I’ve not been there to see it, our youngest granddaughters have since they’ve use to live just across the street from one of it’s many stops. This train collects toys, candies and coats to give out along the route it travels which is usually the weekend after Thanksgiving. I think it would a fun time to ride the train and be a helper. The thought of seeing all of the kids and listening to their excitement warms my heart. Merry Christmas to everyone, and God’s richest blessings to all!!!!

  • Reply
    December 22, 2021 at 9:48 am

    I always enjoy Pap and Paul singing, and Away in a Manger is one of my favorite Christmas songs. I think we all have been singing that song since we were very young. Santa didn’t come to our town on a train, but our town lay between two railroad lines coming out of Chicago so I have sweet memories of just hearing the whistle way out in the distance. If I hear a train whistle off in the distance from where I live now it is a comforting sweet sound to my old ears.

  • Reply
    December 22, 2021 at 9:08 am

    A former RCA country music singer, Marlow Tackett, was known as “Mountain Santa Claus” in eastern KY. He started giving toys to needy children many years ago as a way of giving back to his hometown. With volunteers and donations from across the country, the tradition soon became one of the biggest and most looked forward to events in town. Marlow passed away ten or more years ago but will always be remembered for his generosity.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 22, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Thanks for this post about the Christmas train. I was vaguely aware of it but either had never known or had forgotten about the specifics of time and place. That route from KY to Kingsport, TN goes right through the Eastern Ky Coalfields and the Cumberland Mountains. That is east of where we grew up. We were just at the western edge of the coal country. There was a coal & timber company train in our county but it was a short, dead-end line with only one declining coal camp at the end of it. There had been other camps but they had gone by my time.

  • Reply
    Ray Presley
    December 22, 2021 at 8:56 am

    We had no Christmas train, but “Santa Claus” always appeared at our church near Christmas Day. We could never figure out where “Santa” stored his bag during the service, but when he’d bust through the door with the big burlap tow sack with all the little brown paper pokes filled with candy and fruit, it was always a welcomed treat. My favorite candy was always the large chocolate drops that had somehow gotten melted around the oranges and apples. It was the best treat of the whole Christmas season, because most of us got little else. Later I learned that giving out those little pokes in our area originated in the coal mining towns near Kingsport, Tennessee.

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    December 22, 2021 at 8:55 am

    I have seen in movies and documentaries of the children running behind the Santa train. They looked so happy. My memories as a child of seeing Santa was in the parade and in Belk’s Department Store. Thank you for sharing about the Santa train. Take care and God bless! Merry Christmas

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 22, 2021 at 8:25 am

    This is exactly the kind of stories/news we need to hear on this glorious holiday season! Thank you!

  • Reply
    Margie G
    December 22, 2021 at 8:17 am

    I love trains (naturally of course.) I grew up listening to trains, their whistles signaling time of day, and a good job was one on the railroad all the men wanted. The idea of the Santa Train is very wonderful to me! Children all excited about candy, toys and seeing Santa himself not to mention adults who get excited over the children’s happiness and seeing Santa themselves and hearing “ ho ho ho!!!! Merry Christmas!” I think most adults are really big kids inside. I know I am and won’t deny it. Merry Christmas to all you BIG KIDS out there! I hope Santa comes by way of any means necessary into your home and heart this Christmas! Merry Christmas to all great and small!!! It’s wonderful and exciting to me!!!

  • Reply
    December 22, 2021 at 7:55 am

    Christmas was always such a festive time in those coalfields in the forties, and every effort was made to let children enjoy a wonderful Christmas. This was at a time when even the young children could read about how impoverished they supposedly were. I recall winning a Santa writing contest for a boy and girl from my school, and Dad taking me to pick up my gift at Northfork, West Virginia. They got my doll mixed up with an already wrapped boy’s toy. I often wondered how the little boy enjoyed his doll as my sisters and I had a blast with a metal toy meant for him where you loaded sand and men with bins on their backs would tilt over until the sand made its way to a bin on the bottom. Even later in life when my work required driving back into those areas, I was so excited to come upon these little communities back in the mountains at Christmastime. They had bright colored lights all over their fences and trees. Once a few years back saw lights around their entire satellite dish. Nothing quite like being on call, and from the darkness all around you enter from darkness into what appears to be a magic kingdom of flickering lights everywhere. You become once again the child! Success, cares of the world are forgotten as you are transported back with a vision of Christmas through a child’s eyes.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 22, 2021 at 7:02 am

    I remember santa arriving in many ways when I was little. Modt memorable was a helicopter. But yrs a train many times

  • Reply
    donna sue
    December 22, 2021 at 6:50 am

    When I lived in Iowa for several years, there was a train in Waverly named The Polar Express. I never went on it, but the schools would take the kids on it for a field trip. Many different communities across the nation, and in other countries, too, have different ways of Santa coming to give candy to the community’s children. Some Santa’s come by way of a fire truck, others by a horse drawn wagon., and there many other inventive ways Santa visits the children. Some Santa’s only bring candy, others gifts, too. I remember vaguely hearing about the train through the Appalachians as an adult in Iowa I think, but had forgotten about it until I read this post. Growing up in El Cajon, California, the Sunday before Thanksgiving is the Mother Goose Parade. As you can guess from it’s name – the theme of the parade is characters and scenes from children’s stories. The parade was started in the post war 40s by the merchants of downtown. By the time I was a kid, it had grown to a huge event. Hollywood would even be there with various celebrities. In my kid’s mind, it was a bigger parade than Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. My family didn’t bother driving to it, we would probably end up only finding parking near our street anyways. Cars were parked all over the city for miles. So we would walk there. You had to get there early in the morning if you wanted to be able to sit on the curb and have a good view. Otherwise, there were so many people that adults had to be reminded to let the kids up front so they could see. My favorite part was always the marching bands. I loved the feel of the drums rumbling through the ground as they marched past. I didn’t want them to be playing songs as they went by me. I wanted cadence only! High schools from throughout Southern California, and a few from the north part of the state, were there. Between the floats, the bands, and other parade participants, in my kid’s perception, the parade had to be a several hours long. And always, the very last float was Santa on his huge sleigh float, tossing candy to all the kids along the parade route. On the way home, my legs could feel the bands playing cadence still, and I would pretend I was a majorette with her baton. Sometimes I would spin and do other fancy moves as I twirled my baton, and other times I would march just holding my baton on my hip as they did. Whenever I have lived away from El Cajon, I never feel that Christmas starts until a few days before Christmas. The Mother Goose Parade always brought in the Christmas season, and without it, I have a hard time getting in the mood. Another thing I miss that always heralded in Christmas is the big star on Rattlesnake Mountain that can be seen all over the East County Valley in San Diego County. My parent’s house is just a few blocks from the base of Rattlesnake, so we had the perfect view of the gigantic star. The star began in the 50s by the family that lived at the top of the 1200 foot mountain. Thanksgiving night it would be turned on, and every night until January 2nd, it is faithfully on. When the cost of the electricity bill became too much for the family, and it was reported the tradition of the star would be no more, donations began to come in every year from all over the county to help the family pay the electricity bill to keep the star lit every year. It’s funny. Even as an adult I find it unbelievable that no one outside of San Diego county knows about our star. And even though I have spent a third of my life not living in California now, Christmas just isn’t the same without these two community traditions. Thankfully I can pop in my dvd of “Miracle on 34th Street”, starring Maureen O’Hara, every Thanksgiving night while I lay around like a beached whale after a day of feasting no matter where I live. That is another holiday tradition that signals to me it’s time to begin the month long Christmas celebration each year!

    Donna. : )

  • Reply
    Martha D Justice
    December 22, 2021 at 6:13 am

    I can only imagine the joy this train has brought to so many people ,young and old, over the years. Hope it continues for many more. SPREAD THE JOY ❤ MERRY CHRISTMAS ❤

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