Based on the true Christmas story of the annual Santa Claus Special train that brings Santa Claus to the poor towns of remote Appalachia.
The Santa Claus Special – Audio Story
Now I’m going to tell you all a Christmas story – but before I do, I have a word of warning for all you adults in the room. I’m about to let you in on a little secret that might change your life. It might change the way you look at the world and make you question everything you’ve been told, and everything you believe in. Are you ready? Then, here goes…
Despite what your parents may have told you – there is a real Santa Claus. And I should know, because I’ve seen him myself!
Now before you think I’m absolutely nuts, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in 1937 deep in the remote mountains of southwestern Virginia. Even as a very young boy, I remember how big and rocky those mountains were. Our tiny, two-room cabin clung to the mountainside like a crow perched on a tree limb. The soil was so hard and barren that nobody could make a decent living growing crops. If you ever saw where we lived, you might wonder why we didn’t just get up and leave.
Daddy moved us there for two reasons – to be close to relatives, and to work the coal mines. Daddy’s family had worked in the mines for years, so when he was old enough, he grabbed a shovel and went to work. Of course, back then a lot of the work was done by hand. Daddy would frequently come home and fall fast asleep on the couch from exhaustion. But even though we didn’t have much, he provided everything we needed to live.
One day, Daddy was told he had to go off and fight for our country in some place I’d never heard of. After he left, my older brothers and sisters would read his letters aloud that he sent back from these real exotic-sounding places. But one day, the letters stopped coming. Mama worried herself sick until the day some military men showed up on our doorstep. My daddy was killed in battle, they said, but rest assured – he had died bravely.
So Mama was faced with the hard job of raising my brothers and sisters and me alone. She could barely pay our bills, but there was really nowhere else we could go. We all slept in the same room, and there was barely enough food to make it through the day. When winter came, the bitterly cold winds would blow through the holes in the walls, and we’d huddle up against one another to keep warm. But we had many happy days – more than some families I know. I guess if you don’t know what you’re missing, then what you got is good enough.
Like I said, where we grew up was very remote. There was only one winding dirt road which lead into the mining town, and it took so long to get there that we’d take combined trips with our neighbors to get supplies. Now when I say “town,” I ain’t talking New York City here. Our “town” had about three buildings: a bank, a barbershop and a company store. But to me, going to town was an adventure, for it was my only contact with the outside world.
I remember Christmas being a very special time for us. All the families would decorate the local church and fix these huge dinners. We’d sing and laugh and have the biggest snowball fights you ever saw. And on Sunday, our own family would make a special trip to the cemetery to decorate Daddy’s grave with Christmas flowers and ribbons. We figured he ought to celebrate with us, for Mama always said that he was still around, even though we couldn’t see him.
As you may imagine, there wasn’t much gift-giving going on in our neck of the woods. In fact, I really didn’t know that people gave gifts during Christmas. That is, until I made a trip to town one day and saw a funny sight in the store window: a picture of a jolly old man in a red suit, jumping down a chimney with what looked like a bag full of presents.
“Who’s that?” I asked Mama, pointing at the picture.
“Nothing, honey,” she said, quickly turning me away. “It’s just a picture.”
Well, me being four years old at the time, that answer wasn’t nearly good enough. Every time we’d pass that store, I’d tug Mama’s sleeve and ask over and over again, “Who’s that man?” And I began to notice that she was very reluctant to answer. In fact, it got to the point where we’d avoid the store altogether, and she’d send one of my older brothers in to get whatever we needed.
But one Christmas, I eventually wore her down. The mining town was filled with even more pictures of this mysterious old man, and I could barely contain my curiosity. So when I asked again, this was the answer my mama gave me: “His name’s Santa Claus, dear. It’s just a Christmas story some folks tell. He’s not a real person.”
I believed her at first, but then I started hearing other things at school. And when we’d go into town, I’d sneak a look at some of the Christmas magazines and books. I learned that, for someone who supposedly isn’t real, an awful lot of people seemed to believe in him. He lived up in the North Pole and had a team of elves that built toys for him. And when Christmas came, he’d hop in his sleigh and deliver those toys to children who’d been good all year round. And we’re not just talking down the street – he delivered presents as far away as China – all in one night!
I presented this evidence to my mother on Christmas Eve that year. And I told her that, other than the time I scared Mrs. Robinson’s mule with a firecracker, and the time I threw mud at Jimmy Harlan (he deserved it, by the way), I’d been a pretty good kid. Why hadn’t Santa come out to see us?
My older brothers and sisters looked at each other with this sad look. And I remember tears suddenly filling my mama’s eyes as she turned away. I wasn’t too young to know that I’d just asked a question I shouldn’t have.
You ever have one of those moments when you suddenly find out the truth about something, and everything around you seems to change? Well that’s what happened to me that night. I looked around at our musty, cold cabin filled with broken furniture and empty cabinets. I noticed the old, ragged shirts we wore, their colors scrubbed out long ago in the hard stream water. I noticed the jagged mountains towering above us, blanketing us in dark shadows broken only by the candles we placed around the room.
I then knew the truth – Santa was real, and he wasn’t coming to see us. Only children with real homes in fancy cities would find him sliding down their chimneys Christmas morning. Santa had forgotten us, and it looked like it was going to stay that way.
Talk about getting down in the mouth – that was me all over. I wasn’t in the mood to do all the happy holiday stuff we did in years past. After all, if Christmas was a holiday for rich people, why should we bother celebrating it?
So as another year went by, I started dreading Christmas. The last thing I wanted to see were those red ribbons on the town lampposts, the wreaths on the church door – and certainly not that mean old man whose picture was hanging in the company store. Whenever everyone went into town, I’d stay at home and sit on the porch. I was six years old, and I already wanted to leave this place.
One day, I remember sitting alone on the porch throwing rocks at the fence post. Everyone else had gone into town, and a cold silence had filled the snowy valley. The distant whistle of the approaching 3:00 train suddenly filled the air, followed by the chug-chug-chug of the locomotive. It arrived every day like clockwork, and by its sound I knew my family would be home shortly.
It was then that I heard the frantic sound of footsteps running down the road toward our house. I turned and saw a sight that made my blood run cold – it was Jimmy Harlan, running breathlessly in my direction, his face red and his eyes wild. Jimmy was a very big boy with a mean streak to match. Obviously, I thought, he hasn’t forgotten the mud-throwing incident from over a year ago. And now that my family was gone, he was going to take his revenge on me, the scrawniest kid in the valley.
“Wait!” he screamed as I bolted for the door. “I gotta tell you somethin’!”
As I slammed the door behind me, Jimmy ran up on the porch and looked through the window. Something in his eyes made me curious, so I asked, “What do you want?”
“He’s here!” Jimmy yelled through the glass. “You gotta come see. Quick, before he leaves!”
“Santa Claus!” Jimmy gasped. “He’s on the train!”
Now if Jimmy wanted revenge, he’d picked a good way to do it. I was already feeling lousy enough about Christmas, and now here was Jimmy rubbing it in. I had to give him credit – he was a pretty smart guy.
But to my surprise, Jimmy didn’t wait for me to open the door so he could beat me to a pulp. Instead, he went running as fast as he could down the hillside, straight toward the approaching train. When he had gotten far enough away, I eased open the door and made my way slowly down the hill behind him – my curiosity had gotten the best of me.
As I got closer to the tracks, I could hear the sounds of people cheering. I ran faster and faster through the woods, the thundering train wheels growing louder and louder as I approached. I finally cleared the trees and found myself right up against the tracks. And what I saw next made my jaw drop.
A crowd of people had lined the tracks, waving and cheering to the train as it slowly inched its way past them. I wondered what the big deal was since this train arrived without fanfare almost every day – that is, until I saw the caboose. There, sitting in the back surrounded by big burlap sacks of gifts was Santa Claus – flowing white beard, big belly, red suit and all, just like in the pictures!
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he laughed heartily as he reached into the sacks and tossed toys, warm clothing and candy to the ecstatic boys and girls. “Merry Christmas! Ole Santa sees you.” His team of elves surrounded him, and they didn’t look like the tiny people I had seen in books. In fact, they almost looked like normal people – without the pointy ears, of course.
As Santa rolled on past me, he gave me a wink and threw a wrapped box in my direction, along with handfuls of hard candy. He then gave me one last wave and a hearty laugh before disappearing around the bend.
I remember standing by the tracks in a state of shock as Santa’s train whistle faded into memory. To this day, I can’t remember what the present was that Santa gave me, and it really doesn’t matter. And year after year, Santa would return aboard “The Santa Claus Special,” as it later became known. Word would spread like wildfire as the train approached, and the air was filled with what would become the traditional shout: “Santa’s coming! Santa’s coming!”
And as I grew older, I began to realize that Santa doesn’t just live in the North Pole like all the books say. He lives in London, England, the African jungle and, yes, southwestern Virginia – anywhere that there are people that could use a little magic and joy this time of year.
How do I know this, you ask? Because almost 57 years later, I have become Santa Claus. When I looked old enough to play the part (the white hair and big belly helped), I slipped into the uniform, boarded “The Santa Claus Special” and returned to my mountain home. And although the area isn’t as isolated as it used to be, the looks on the children’s faces are still the same as mine was so long ago.
So yes, there is a Santa Claus after all. And you don’t have to look very far to find him.
Written and Directed by Craig Dominey
Told by Jim McAmis
Sound Design by Henry Howard
Where Did This Story Come From?
In some of the most remote areas of Appalachia, the start of the holiday season traditionally begins with the arrival of the Santa Special, a train owned and operated by CSX Transportation with Santa himself on board. For over 57-years, thousands of rural families have turned out to welcome Santa along a 110-mile route that begins in Pikeville, Kentucky and ends up in Kingsport, Tennessee.
The tradition began in 1943 when a small group of Kingsport businessmen wanted to do something to thank their customers in Southwest Virginia. They made arrangements with representatives of the Clinchfield Railroad (the predecessor of CSX), and created what would become the world’s largest Santa Parade.
As it winds it way though the remote valleys, coal fields and lumberyards of Appalachia, the Santa Train touches many lives along the way. Santa and his team of volunteers (which have included country stars Marty Stuart and Patty Loveless) deliver over 15 tons of gifts along the way, along with plenty of holiday cheer and excitement. In addition, two high school seniors along the way are awarded the Santa Train Scholarships each year to help them fund their college educations.