The towns of Marrowbone, KY or Haysi, VA might not qualify as hustling metropolitan areas – but on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year those coal mining communities – and 11 others like them – come alive with the anticipation of the holiday season through The Santa Train – a partnership of CSX Railroad, Dignity U-Wear, Food City, and the Kingsport (TN) Chamber of Commerce.
A 110-mile trek from just outside of Pikeville, KY all the way to Kingsport, The Santa Train has been coasting throughout the mountainside for 73 years now – providing gifts and clothing to children of all ages – and providing what very well could be the only Christmas celebration that some in the area might see.
For Amy Margaret McColl, who serves as Convention/Visitors Bureau Marketing Manager of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, The Santa Train is something that her organization looks forward to very much. “We are very excited to be part of this again.” She tells CMChatLive.com. “It originated here as a way for us to thank our patrons from eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. We’re honored to be a part of the tradition again.”
One of the aspects of The Santa Train that McColl enjoys is the way the event unites families of all ages. “It’s neat to see the multi-generations of people that come out – the grandparents, the parents, and the children that attend is definitely a time honored tradition.”
Food City, a supermarket chain based in Abingdon, Virginia, is also one of the key cogs in the wheel that keeps The Santa Train moving down the track. The company began their involvement in the event in the early 1990s under the tutelage of the late Ed Moore. The chain’s Mark Hubbard says he’s glad to carry that tradition forward.
“Mr. Moore loved giving back to the community. Most of all, he loved helping people that wouldn’t have had a Christmas were it not for The Santa Train.” Hubbard says it’s one of the largest endeavors his stores take part in each year. “It’s big for the company, and our team. We’ve been gearing up for it for about two months. We usually get shirts every year to show what it means to us personally.” All told, the 135-location chain donates roughly 14 tons of food and an additional 3 tons of stuffed animals that are handed out by volunteers on The Santa Train.
Also making quite a donation to the cause is Dignity U-Wear, a Florida-based company that provides clothing to people in need. According to the organization’s Parker McCrary, Dignity U-Wear helps to pack 5,000 bags of clothing for giveaway along the route.
To make The Santa Train work, you obviously need…a train, and the Jacksonville-based CSX Railroad keeps that tradition alive, along with their staff – who volunteer their time each year for the event. Michael J. Ward, CSX Chairman, says he is blown away at the work that his staff puts into making the event a memorable one for families in the Appalachian area. “I think it’s great. If you see the energy and the work that goes on to get these packages out, it’s so amazing how organized it is. The crowds get bigger at each stop. It’s a great tradition, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
As soon as The Santa Train pulls into Kingsport, and the company’s staff celebrates Thanksgiving, it will be time to start thinking about the 74th edition of The Santa Train. Tori Kaplan – Assistant Vice President, Corporate Responsibility at CSX says it will be soon back to the drawing board. “We start planning about two weeks after we finish. We talk about what went well, and what we need to do better, then we go to work. It’s a year-round thing.”
Each year, there is a special celebrity guest who serves as Grand Marshall of The Santa Train. In years past, names such as Amy Grant, Patty Loveless, and Thompson Square have greeted the crowds – which number in the hundreds – at each stop, and this year, The Voice alum (and CMChat favorite) Meghan Linsey did the honors. “It’s been so awesome. I’ve been so excited to do this. You can’t really understand the magnitude of it until you do it – all the people, and the feeling you get being a part of this is something very special. It just feels good.”
She had been looking forward to The Santa Train experience for months, but says it was even more emotional than she planned. “When you’re face to face and it’s real people and real lives, it becomes a lot more real. When you’re there in the moment, it’s a magical thing. It’s really touching. I met some people that have been coming to this for years, and now, they bring their children and grandchildren. It’s their family tradition. I just think that is so special and unique that it’s still happening.”
What are some of Linsey’s favorite holiday moments? Growing up in Louisiana, she said “I don’t think I ever had a White Christmas. It’s definitely relative to where you’re at. My favorite memory has been decorating the tree, and my mom had Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” playing in the background, and I started singing along to it. I think that was the first moment that I realized I was a pretty good singer. That was one of my first memories of thinking that music is something I could do. I was actually pretty good at it.”
Linsey is very grateful for the exposure that The Voice gave to her this year. She says that when fans greet her in public, it’s an incredible feeling. “With the show, there is so much backstory with where you came from, that the people really get to know you. For me, I’ll be at the grocery store, and people will come up to me and say ‘Meghan, how are you?’ I will have to think about it for a minute to see if I know them because they are so sure they know me. That’s cool, almost like old friends. That’s how it feels.”
The singer is currently promoting her latest EP, Believer. “It’s something I worked on before The Voice, and during the whole process. I co-wrote all of the songs, and it was produced by Tyler Cain. It’s really special to me.” Linsey also has a new holiday song on the market. “I’ve got a new Christmas song out called “Perfect Time Of Year,” that I just shot a video for with my two dogs, Betty and Charlie. They’re my fur babies. It’s just us – really cute and fun. I came out with my new product line, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. There’s a lot of exciting stuff that has happened. It’s been a good year.”
For more information about The Santa Train, go to www.Facebook.com/SantaTrain