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Classic: Polar Express Train

Classic: Polar Express Train
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Written and illustrated a dozen years ago by Providence, Rhode Island, resident Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express has become a holiday classic. It tells the story of a young boy whose friends tell him there is no Santa Claus. He refuses to believe it, and on Christmas Eve he lies in bed, listening for the sound of hooves on the roof. Instead, he hears a train’s whistle. He creeps downstairs and boards the train destined for the North Pole. On the way, the boy and dozens of other children pass through dense forests and deep valleys. Wild animals scatter as they rush by. At the North Pole, Santa and the elves prepare feverishly for the trip around the world. Santa picks one child — the boy in the story — to receive the first gift of Christmas. Though he can have anything he chooses, he asks Santa for a bell from his sleigh. On the train home, the boy loses the bell through a hole in his bathrobe, only to find it again, wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning. He loves the way it sounds, but his parents can’t hear it. Only believers can hear the bell. For the rest of his life, he will hear it.

When we boarded the train at the restored turn-of-the-century station in North Conway village, we could see lights sparkling on Mount Cranmore. To Ian they looked like stars so close he could almost touch them. Inside, we sat on leather seats with curved arms; the oak paneling, the high ceilings, etched-glass doors and transoms made us feel we were traveling in another era. In the spring, summer, and fall, the trains of the Conway Scenic Railroad carry passengers on scenic tours of the Mount Washington Valley. But on December weekends, in the chill of the evening, the trains depart for only one destination: the North Pole. Some years ago, after reading Chris Van Allsburg’s book, several local folks thought of using the Conway Scenic Railroad to reenact the North Pole journey. The first year, there were five trips; in 1997 there were ten, all of them sold out.

If you truly need to know where the train is going, one of the 300 local volunteers might tell you that the train goes from Conway to Bartlett. The North Pole, if you insist, is the Bear Peak Lodge at Attitash. Every weekend evening, volunteers labor mightily to convert the lodge into the North Pole and Santa’s workshop. The profits from the train rides are used to promote literacy programs in the valley. And those volunteers — 90 are needed each night — dress up as elves, complete with red velvet suits, pointy shoes, and hats with bells. The volunteers become chefs, too, who ride the trains in snow-white toques, serving hot chocolate and chocolate nougat candies.

Carolers in blue velvet come down the train aisles singing “O Christmas Tree.” All around us, some children sing, most chatter. They’re dressed in PolarFleece, stocking caps, pajamas, and flannel nighties. Some have teddy bears. Some are rehearsing what they will tell Santa if he asks them what they want. “I want a Barbie,” I hear, and “Hot Wheels garage!” Even the grown-ups are giddy. There’s jostling and hot-chocolate splashing. A little sister gets elbowed off a seat near a window and I hear parents whispering of “time-outs.”

Outside, the full moon shines on the snow, on birches, balsams, and firs. We come to a crossing. The train whistles and cars wait as we pass through a little town. We spot a Mobil station and some grown-up remarks about how unusual it is to “see a Mobil station this close to the North Pole.” My mother chuckles.

Ian wipes steam from the window and looks out. In a clearing is a farmhouse, candles in each window. A man wearing a Santa hat steps onto the front porch and waves to us. The train picks up speed, and we rush through forests of dusky pines, the outlines of hills in the distance. There are fewer houses on winding roads; the snow deepens. In the woods, faraway lights from faraway cottages flicker in the dark. Looking up at the sky (for reindeer?), Ian, struggling around the giant nougat candy in his cheek, says, “It’s so nice, Mummy.”

“There’s a swing year,” my mother whispers to me. “Usually around seven or eight years old. They want to believe in Santa still, but everything — their friends, maybe an older brother, their own reasoning — points to not believing. The eight-year-olds lobby hard for you to tell them about Santa’s real identity. But you can see them wavering,” she says. “They hedge their bets, because they think if they don’t believe, they won’t get any presents. So for a while, they decide to believe.”

The train slows; we must be getting close. Doors open and conductors in crisp blue uniforms and hats stride through. The lights come up and the noise level, if possible, goes up. I prepare Ian for the North Pole: He’ll need to wear his hat, scarf, and mittens.

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good?” he asks me.

“He does,” I say. “But you have been very, very good. You were born that way.”

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