Magical moments are the stuff that childhood is made of, and by my calculations, magic is at a premium around here. In fact, the bubble on the stuff of childhood is due to break any moment. I’m not trying to be a Scrooge as much as I am trying to be realistic. My kids are growing up. I won’t even go into the countdown of Christmases left to enjoy (four more for my oldest….sigh) before they are grown. To say that I am desperate to make holiday memories before the time runs out is an understatement.
As ominous as that sounds, we are also at a stage of life that is just about perfect for milking every last drop out of the Christmas magic. Teenagers, normally surly and aloof, will practically melt in a puddle for their little brother, thus extending the amount of total time that everyone can get wrapped up in a dreamlike memory moment. And that is how we ended up on a train with everyone from the teenagers to the littlest wearing pajamas with a golden ticket to the North Pole in hand.
Our golden tickets took us to the Texas State Railroad in Palestine, TX, where the historic trains transform into the Polar Express each November and December. This story, elevated to holiday iconography in the movie starring Tom Hanks, is the definition of Christmas magic. It’s hard to grapple with the Christmas greats like Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch, but Polar Express steamed its way right to the top of the Christmas season perennials in 2004, and is still popular enough that Polar Express trains board across the country every Christmas. It’s not just the stunning visuals and the power music that make this story memorable. It is the hauntingly, magical quality that is light on Christmas clichés and heavy on Christmas spirit.
In my ever-present search for any and all Christmas spirit, a ride on the Polar Express out of Palestine, which is just two hours east of Dallas, was just the ticket. Onboard the train the best parts of the story come to life and allows visitors to become immersed in the live action spirit of the season. Since this movie is a family favorite (yes, even for the surly teenagers), I had my jingle bells crossed that everyone would be swept away by the moment.
~As the first trip of the day, we had the privilege of watching the engine steam into place at the head of the train~
As soon as we arrived at the station, the kids were presented with their golden ticket as the soundtrack from the movie rang out across the light-lined park. The music was just the beginning of setting the stage to immerse us in the story. If this soundtrack had been available back when the Grinch was around it’s what would have been used to grow his shrunken heart. With the sounds of Christmas music playing, we enjoyed the building of anticipation as the steam engine puffed into the place of honor at the front of the train. With faces pressed to glass we watched as the conductor paced back and forth, and then checked his watch. All Aboard!
We were seated in the Diamond Class, the second-level of a domed, double-decker car that sat 16 feet above the rails and offered large picture windows for excellent viewing. As one of the newer cars, the interior felt luxurious. Our assigned table was waiting for us with cookies and a napkin set at each place. As the train began to roll out of the station, the familiar tune signaling the serving of hot chocolate piped through the loudspeakers. On cue, the aisles were filled with dancing chefs who delivered us each a souvenir cup of hot chocolate with flair.
With cookies and cocoa, it was the perfect time for a story. A reading of the Polar Express played through the speakers as an ideal diversion during our ride to the North Pole. We had brought along our personal storybook to follow along with the reading, but the server also had a copy of the book and passed through the aisles to show the pictures. The story ended with just enough time to begin building the anticipation for our arrival to the North Pole. That’s when it happened-a miracle-sized sprinkling of the Christmas spirit passed through the cabin of our #43 train car.
My six-year-old, the only member of our family who was really buying into this whole production, stared out the window and bounced up and down in excitement. Suddenly, as if this North Pole in Palestine, TX held some actual magical power, the excitement of this child caught on in everyone. There were smiles and laughter all around, as everyone was equally enjoying the company and the experience. One of my teenagers couldn’t resist pulling his little brother onto his lap and playing into the anticipation. The look on their faces as the North Pole came into view was more beautiful that any gift that could ever be wrapped under the tree.
As we reversed our steam engine to return the depot, the children onboard were gifted with a surprise visit from Santa, and each one of them received a silver bell that would only ring for those who believed. All four of my kids held their bells up and listened to them ring, and even gathered for a group picture with Santa.
Pulling back into the station, I realized that I had been reminded that I need not worry that my kids will lose the spirit of Christmas, at least not completely. I saw the wonder in each of their eyes (yes, even the surly teenagers) that comes from getting caught up in the magic of enjoying something special with the people you love. As long as they never outgrow the ability to love each other, there will always be Christmas magic.
~Polar Express provided our family with tickets to ride the train. They did not require that I express a particular viewpoint and all opinions are my own.~