Santa Train Keeps Christmas On Track

Santa Train Keeps Christmas On Track

By Brooke Kelly

This weekend was the 72nd running of The Santa Train, an Appalachian Christmas tradition which is co-hosted by MP&F client CSX. Celebrity guest Amy Grant passed out toys, food and goods to children at the various stops along the 110-mile route. Read more about Amy’s experience in the Nov. 23 edition of The Tennessean.

Santa TrainSanta Train Keeps Christmas On Track

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – Christmas came a month early for hundreds of country girls and boys Saturday as the Santa Train merrily moseyed through rural Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

A 110-mile magical sleigh ride along the rails, this Appalachian holiday tradition began in 1943 and sees the jolly gift-giver spread smiles across the miles as he and his helpers distribute 15 tons of toys, dolls, food, candy and cold weather gear at stops in 14 communities along the tracks.

The most popular word on this glorious day?


Indeed, “Santa! Santa!” sprouts from the lips of children as they stand near the back of the train as Mr. Claus and volunteer elves toss soft toys and candy into crowds that range from several hundred to more than a thousand. Tots raise their hands high in the air and many children are perched on dad’s shoulders as they attempt to snare St. Nick’s attention.

“I run on pure adrenalin because it’s such a long day,” says Santa, who goes under the guise of Don Royston, a Kingsport accountant, the rest of the year. “I’m on back of the train from 6:15 in the morning till 3:08, and then I get to introduce the celebrity and ride in the Kingsport Christmas Parade.”

Filling the boots of celebrity guest this year was jingle belle star Amy Grant, who also pitched gifts to the children.

“I wish I could throw farther,” said the Nashville singer-songwriter. “I mean, that eye contact when you’re on the back of the train and you’re holding a teddy bear; like, you know, if a locked gaze could be a zip line and you could just make that teddy bear go right to that child.”

In its 72nd year, the Santa Train departs Shelby, Ky., near dawn in a bone-chilling 28 degrees, but the ride grows warmer with the rising sun and the flourishing goodwill as folks on the train take turns at each stop passing out color-coded bags geared toward boys and girls and specific age ranges.

The adventure, sponsored by CSX, Dignity U Wear, Food City and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, takes more than 500 volunteers, who labor all year long to make it happen.

At the train’s first stop in Marrowbone, Ky., Jason Atkins’ face shines with glee as his 4-year-old son receives one of the gift bags holding a blanket and toys.

“I’ve been coming since I been 9 years old, for 32 years,” he says. “It’s a tradition for us. We love to see Santa. We want to carry it on for many years.”

Calli Caudill, 12, of Bart Lick, Va., exclaims, “I got a doll, bingo and a bag. This is fun and exciting and a great experience. The best part is being able to see everybody happy.”

And Susan “Tootsie” Williams of Alley Valley, Va., brought her granddaughter, Skyler, 1½.

“This is her first trip to the Santy Train,” Williams said. “It makes me smile. There’s not a lot to smile about anymore. A lot of these children, this will be Christmas for them and that’s wonderful.”

Vocalist Grant sums up the experience saying, “It’s a great reminder that the best feeling comes from giving, and that showing up makes a difference. We had to show up on the train, and the people had to show up in the cold. It goes both ways, and everybody left with a better feeling.”