The names of town like Marrowbone, KY or Kermit, VA might not necessarily bring to mind the term “Metropolitan Area,” but for citizens of those communities – the spirit of Christmas rings just as loudly and as bright as Macy’s in the Big Apple.
Since 1943, those areas up and down the CSX Railroad line have spent the Saturday before Thanksgiving getting geared up for the annual running of the annual Santa Train. Sponsored by CSX, Food City, the Kingsport (TN) Chamber, and Dignity U Wear, Santa Claus begins his morning around 5am in Shelby, KY – just to the south of Pikeville, and embarks on a 110-mile trip up and down the rail line. Toys, food, and even wrapping paper – it is a necessity, after all – are handed out to children along the route. It’s something that Jolly Ole Kris Kringle looks forward to every year – if just for the breathtaking scenery of Appalachia alone.
“You can’t tell me that God didn’t create a beautiful world when you ride through here,” said the man dressed in red, as the train passed through the southwestern part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. But, he says, the day is a lot more than that. The looks on the faces of the thousands of children that he meets throughout the day is payment enough for his trek from the North Pole.
“You see the sparkle in their eyes when they first spot you and they spot the train. We’ve got these wonderful celebrities that come and help us each year, and they have such big smiles when they catch that first toy from me or them, or it could be a total complete stranger. It’s a great day for sure.”
Over the years, the celebrity guests have included Wynonna, Thompson Square, and Patty Loveless – who immortalized the tradition in her 2001 song of the same title. This year, that special guest was Darryl Worley, who says that the Santa Train represents a great American tradition, and he’s glad to be a part of it. “I had heard of ‘Santa Train,’ the Patty Loveless song, but I really didn’t know very much about it. This is one of those things that we would be a part of every single year. Something like this changes lives on both sides. That’s the cool thing. We brought Savannah, our daughter, with us because it will keep her feet on the ground. I asked her what she was getting out of this, and she said ‘It makes me grateful for the things I have in life.’ It’s emotional, and very spiritual. It’s very much the kind of thing that you’d want to be involved in at Christmas time. It’s all about giving. It’s God’s work. I believe that with all my heart.”
Though the hills and mountains that Worley visited during the Santa Train run are a little bit different than his native West Tennessee – where he has made many a ‘Tennessee River Run,’ Worley tells Sounds Like Nashville that Appalachia is not that much different than his native area of Pickwick Landing. “I spent the past two or three days up in Pike County deer hunting with some friends, and I told my wife that this is not so different from West Tennessee where I grew up.” He said that rural area the train travels through takes him back to his own childhood memories. “Everything around Christmas was about family, and both sides of our family were very much into hunting and fishing – that’s all we had to do. We were seventy miles from the nearest interstate or mall, and our entertainment was that and picking and singing. That’s all we had.”
CSX is proud of their role in keeping those memories alive – and making a few more for folks along the path of the railroad. “There’s not many more traditions anymore that are seventy-four years old, and at CSX, we not only see ourselves as a partner, but we actually bring the product to the people, and help to keep the tradition alive,” beamed Tori Kaplan of CSX. She said the generosity of everyone involved with the train is something that never ceases to amaze her. “This is my twelfth year. The outpouring and in-pouring of things from all across the country. People will send blankets and hats from everywhere. It seems that every year, there’s a new story to tell about where some of the things have come from.”
The train began in 1994- as a way to thank the people of Kentucky and Virginia for shopping in Kingsport, and the city’s Chamber coordinator, Amy Margaret McColl says that hearing about how the train’s story has affected those in the area is something that emotionally every year. “That’s my favorite part about the train,” she says. “I actually had a great opportunity to sit down with lady during the Food City Packing Night. She called me over, and wanted to thank the Kingsport Chamber for being a sponsor. She told me that she was one of nine children, and the week of the Santa Train, they could not sleep because they were so excited. Now, she can bring her grand-daughter and great-granddaughter. Every time she would talk about the train, she would get very emotional and choked up. That was the only Christmas she received when she was a child that year. That was a very touching story.”
For Food City – a major grocery chain in the region, the Santa Train has become a yearly labor or love for the company. “Normally, in about July, I will start reaching out to the people for volunteering or donations,” says Food City’s Jamie Hinton, “but we receive things all year long. It’s an all-year event, but it really picks up in July, and on into September. “By that time, we’re really rolling.” She said the company’s long-standing commitment to Santa Train was handed down from one of their late executives. “I learned from Ed Moore how everything should run. He was the tradition of Santa Train. It meant more to him than anything. He would start counting the days to Santa Train, and let us know how many more days we had until it. He was a really big part of what this is,” she said. In addition to the toys, clothes, and food that was distributed, gift cards to the grocery to store adults along the way.
And, that ‘Chain of Love’ looks to continue growing in the future, as many follow the Train each November. Santa admits that Darryl Worley still has the athletic flair that he possessed at Hardin County High School in Tennessee, but he has passed it on.
“Not only does Darryl have a good arm, but Savannah, his daughter can flat get the toys back there, too,” he said of her plush toy-throwing ability. “She’s got an arm. It’s Santa’s ‘Elves In Training.”