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Classic: Polar Express Train

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.”

Helped by elves in red velvet, we step off the train and walk through a tunnel of elves holding lanterns along a path up toward Santa’s workshop. Outside the workshop, elves drag a huge red sack of toys toward Santa’s parked sleigh.

“Mom, this is cooool,” Ian whispers, very serious.

Inside, hundreds of children sit and kneel in rows before a big stage. There are backdrops — illustrations from The Polar Express. An old man dressed in a bathrobe sits on a chair on the stage and reads from the book — he is playing the part of the boy in the book, at the end of his life, remembering his visit to the North Pole. When he gets to the part where the boy receives a bell from Santa, a bell whose ring he still hears, because he still believes, all the little profiles strain to see. Where is Santa?

Elves scurry around, seeming to prepare. Some dads practice ho-ho-ho’s. The sprinkling music of a dulcimer does little to dampen the gathering commotion that comes from Santa-waiting.

When it is almost too late, Santa comes in. “HO HO HO,” he bellows. He strides past us, seeming to greet every child. Ian hides his head in my lap. Santa looks over his sleigh, checks the fittings, confers with elves. The man in the bathrobe finishes the story. In the end, here at the North Pole, every child will receive a bell from Santa’s sleigh to take home.

Elves help us back onto the train, and we chug back toward North Conway. It’s warm inside. The lights dim, the train rocks and creaks. The singers in blue velvet walk down the aisle, slowly singing “Silent Night.” It’s past the bedtimes of all the children — and some of the adults. Within a few minutes, most are asleep.

I look down at my sleeping, rosy-cheeked son, who’s probably content in the knowledge that Santa exists and that he somehow knows that Ian wants more than anything to get a glow-in-the-dark Hot Wheels car on Christmas morning. I hear bells softly jingling from within PolarFleece pockets and mittened fists — a couple here and there, then a whole chorus of them as we hit a rough patch on the tracks. I look over at my mother and I know she hears the bells too, and she just smiles.

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