Don’t go Riding on that Long Santa Train

Before Andrew, our shopsitter, returned to the sophistication of the big city, Wendy’s all-girl support group (the Grammar Guerrilla Girls) decided he must experience the ultimate Appalachian tradition: The Santa Train. Since I had never seen it, I tagged along as Shelley—who drew the short straw and had to take us—trundled Andrew to one of its nearby stops, the tiny town of St. Paul.

We arrived an hour early to find the classic small-town specialties of any festivity: a car show, street food, and craft vendors. Already, people lined the track; Andrew and I goggled at the massing crowd of parents and children (many in red-and-green Christmas garb) held back with flimsy hazard tape, railroad workers patrolling with bright grins and brighter yellow uniforms.

As we had very little idea what to expect, the appearance of a juvenile clogging team in full regalia didn’t throw us off—until their teacher screamed “SHELLEY!” and grabbed our guide, introducing her through the loudspeakers as “Our Special Star Guest.” Bluegrass music then blared as feet began to fly.

Apparently, they went to school together.

A sudden electricity buzzed through the crowd, and the dancing stopped; the train was coming. Anonymous faces appeared at its windows; we later learned that it’s considered a great honor to ride the Santa Train, mostly for politicians, sponsors and country music wannabes. Invitation angling starts in February.

None of those fortunate few ever did come out to greet the locals, but as the last carriage drew level, the real celebrity emerged. The crowd surged forward, train brakes squealed, and Santa and his helpers began chucking toys, candies, wrapping paper, and clothing (mostly hats and scarves) to people who scrambled and sometimes fought over the bounty.

Children on parents’ shoulders caught soft toys mid-arc while nearby a rescue squad team had arrived, following the train. The rescue workers began flinging board games into the crowd. I glanced at Andrew; his face went white and deadpan as he watched a woman catch one side-on just inches from her face. She squealed—in delight or relief?

So, what did I make of it all?

The Santa Train is a 70 year old tradition that seems to have started as a genuine philanthropic act (you can google it) designed to give people of limited finances a leg up at Christmas. Coming as I do from a country that—like Appalachia—is often characterized as poor, unsophisticated and deserving of charity rather than investment, I found the whole thing a bit embarrassing.

Who is this train for: the people getting largesse flung at them, or those sitting inside, warm and smug at getting to ride it? And which tradition is older: giving to one’s fellow humans in a spirit of generosity, or feeling good about being better off than those poor weirdoes over the hills and far away?

And what about those lining the tracks, grinning as young’uns grabbed goods from the air—or even snatching things before kids could? While for the most part adults were protective of all the attending children, we saw some displays of poor sportsmanship.

The Santa Train reminded me of a story my academic wife tells in her guest lectures on “cultural competency” toward Appalachia:

A woman visiting family was downtown and saw some teens teasing a special needs boy their own age. One held out his palm, a nickel and dime evident.

“Which do you want, Bubba?” he asked, and Bubba replied, “The Nickel, ‘cause it’s bigger.” The boys laughed and handed it over.

The woman waited until they’d gone, then approached the victim. “Son, those boys were making fun of you. A dime is worth more than a nickel, even though it’s smaller to look at.”

The boy grinned. “Lady, I know that. But if I take the dime, they’ll stop doin’ it.”

I thought of this “joke” as Andrew and I watched adults with two and three Hefty sacks full of goods walk away, joined by children clutching their stuffed animals and mothers holding rolls of wrapping paper. All grinning.

Cookie Extortion

Jack returned shopsitter Andrew Whalen to his ancestral home on Sunday; Andrew’s mom drove down US 23, and Jack drove up it. It was a painless and swift swap.

Except now we have this hole in the bookstore. . .

The dogs lie about with doleful expressions. “Where’s that guy who rubbed our ears and plied us with chewy sticks?” their eyes ask.

Owen Meany, staff kitten, has never been the sharpest pencil in the pack, but even he has figured out that someone’s missing. This morning he stood on my face with an alarmed expression and informed me that the guest bedroom was empty. Then he bit my nose.

Meanwhile, without our steady, sensible shopsitter, Jack and I have braced ourselves for the boxes of books that come in during Christmas clean-outs. Lots of people trade over the holidays, in large measure because we have a “Boxing Day” tradition of giving out little boxes of shortbread as part of the deal, Dec. 26-31.

Which brings me to the mean thing I did to Andrew’s mom….

Tammy Whalen runs a company, COOKIE GLASS, that makes the most exquisite baked goods. Little flat ones with butterscotch chips, big thick ones with oatmeal, melty chocolate chunks . . . these babies are GOOOOOOOOOD.

When Andrew’s parents showed up unexpectedly about a month into his sojourn with us, she brought a dozen or so with her. My friend Elizabeth and I promptly sent Andrew to fetch a bucket of steam, and ate our way through the bag, moaning in pleasure. I think the poor kid got two.

That’s how we knew any amount of subterfuge was worth it to get more of these beauts. (They’re not expensive. And she ships. Check out COOKIE GLASS on FB, but make sure you get the company; there’s a couple of people by that name. Heh.)

Shamelessly, I composed a ransom note to Andrew’s mom, explaining that for one dozen cookies, her son would be returned unharmed. For two dozen, he would be returned without any rescue kittens stuffed in his hoodie pockets. (The bookstore fosters shelter cats.)

She bit; Jack and I are now guilty yet proud possessors of two dozen cookies in a beautiful green box with a gold mesh bow. We will be taking them to our friends Ashia and Witold’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Whalens will be remembered fondly amid eye-rolling estatic bites.

In all honesty, I suspect anything this family does is done right. The cookies are brilliant. Andrew was brilliant. Having spent his early career in children’s television production and independent film-making, he will return to Brooklyn after Thanksgiving–during which, he informed us, the family gets to eat all the broken cookies during holiday production, so he didn’t begrudge our ill-gotten loot–to seek new employment, having packed in his Asst. Producer job in search of more challenges.

Jack and I have no doubt he will be snapped up by someone who recognizes that a sensible mind able to isolate and solve problems, keep order, create community and offer excellent customer service is rare and valuable. Wherever they go, Andrew and his equally steadfast female friend Ali will come right in the world–and do good in it.