The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway in Ohio becomes The Polar Express for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is quite a transformation. Here's how an evening goes for us elves:
It's five o'clock and I finish off my elf trappings by making my cheeks pink with my lipstick. Mine is not the whackiest elf costume on the block. In fact if you were to rate it with 10 being the craziest, mine would probably be there at 0. But it fits me--sort of a mix between Mrs. Claus and a pointy earred elf.
Bob, my trainman husband, has already donned his uniform. He looks quite handsome in it and the brass buttons we added to the vest and jacket have really set it off. He has finally earned his trainman's hat that makes him look like a conductor although that's not really his job.
I grab my large bag to store my coat in later, and a roll of paper towels. The towels are for wiping up the hot chocolate drips and any spills that might occur in the exitement of visiting the North Pole. They also help to wipe off the windows of the train when they begin to steam up from all the excited little bodies of children whose one wish is to see the big guy in red.
Arriving at the train yard, I park my car, say a silent prayer of thanks that it's dark early and no one saw me driving in costume, and scurry off to check in for my assigned car.
After a quick bite to eat, the train suddenly jolts and then steadily moves toward the station where we will pick up all the eager children and their families for the journey to the "North Pole." I join the other elves in my car and we ready everything for the storytelling, the hot chocolate/cookie partaking, and all the fun, singing, and games along the way.
After we stop at the station, it isn't long before our car begins to fill with eager voices and spirited Christmas energy. It's what fuels a little elf for the adventure ahead.
The Polar Express, also known as the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, sits at the station at Rockside Road in Independence as eager train riders board and are led to their seats by the elves on the train. My job involves serving the hot chocolate and cookies but I help to keep the energetic little ones--and big ones--entertained as we wait for all to board and be seated. Most, including the adults are wearing their pajamas. It is quite a flannel sleepwear fashion show.
Our trainman in the car informs us that all are aboard and the conductor has given the signal for the train to begin moving forward to the North Pole. Our lead elf, Patrick, begins his welcome, introduces the other four elves in the car and the trainman, and then begins the story of The Polar Express. During the telling, the assistant elves and trainman add sound effects, illustrations, and lots of cheering.
Meanwhile back in a little cubby hole, I and another server elf begin pouring hot chocolate into cups, adding lids, and wrapping packaged cookies (straight from Mrs. Claus' oven) with napkins. As soon as the story is finished, they will be handed out.
Between the refreshments and our arrival at the North Pole, we break out in song but soon, the lights in the car begin to dim. It's the signal that we're getting close. All the children are asked to move to one side of the car and the adults to the other and the "Northern Lights" begin to give the landscape a festive glow.
Elf Patrick announces that we are arriving. We're here! The North Pole! We pass the hobo warming himself by the fire and then we see them--the North Pole elves! They are surrounded by thousands of Christmas lights and displays. And, wait! There's Frosty and the Gingerbread Man and Reindeer and Mr. and Mrs. Jack Frost with their dog, Snowflake! We pass the train cars that are holding all the gifts that Santa will deliver on Christmas Eve. As the train pulls through so that all the cars get a view of everything, Elf Patrick points out the Winking Lizard, the watering hole for the North Pole elves (a little humor for the adults).
We stop and wait a few minutes and sure enough, there's Santa! His sleigh is being pulled by a smaller version of the Polar Express and next to him sits Mrs. Claus. Is that a little flour on her nose from all her baking?
It is at this point that all the hours of volunteering are worth it. There is nothing so special as the faces of little ones who are magically transported to the world of their imagination. Faces pressed against the windows are softly lit by the glow of the Christmas lights. I remember my wonder as a child at all that was magical about the season. But our adventure isn't over yet.
As the Polar Express pulls away from the North Pole, there is a distant jingle of bells. The lights in our train car shine brightly now and everyone has returned to their seats. We sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and suddenly the door to our train car opens and there he is himself--the man in the red suit trimmed in white and ho-ho-hoing as he is welcomed with squeals of delight.
Santa makes his way through the car stopping to hear the wishes of all the little ones. As he greets each child, his assistant elf hands him a sleigh bell (after she checks it to be sure it jingles) and soon the whole train car is alive with jingle bells. The car must be full of "believers" since everyone can hear the bells jingle.
Upon Santa's departure, we of course must sing a chorus or two of Jingle Bells. Then it is on to The Funky Chicken, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and other popular requests. Some nights there is a fashion show of pajama ensembles.
Little ones and some big ones begin to fade and eyelids flutter on the ride home. As we pull into the station, coats are gathered, little ones hoisted in arms, and thank yous ring out all around. It's been a great night as always and the memories will last a lifetime.
When the last passenger has left, elves get busy cleaning up the train car for the next night's run.
"Did you see the look on that little one's face when she got the bell?"
"The one in the blue Star Wars PJs really got into the Funky Chicken!"
The memories for the elves will last a lifetime as well.
[Most everyone is familiar with the story of the Polar Express either through the book or the movie. If you aren't, discover its charm this year. Many areas of the country have a Polar Express during the holidays. Check in your area but be sure to book early. It's quite a popular tradition and growing.]