by Dirk Hertel

We know them as the Christmas or Holiday train, the North Pole or Polar Express, the Santa or Elf Express. They only run between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Their passengers are excited children and their parents, many of whom seldom or never ride a train any other time of the year. Miniature electric trains circle Christmas trees in homes and on public displays in department stores, railroad stations and hotel lobbies.

For many years, each December the MVRS chartered an Amtrak train for the “34 th Street Express”, a day trip from Boston South Station to New York City Penn Station with an option of seeing the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. In 2003 and 2004 the MVRS organized holiday-themed model train shows. It feels as if trains – live-size and miniature – have always been part of American holiday celebrations. But when was the connection made?

Historians can only hypothesize about the connection. It probably started in the 19 th century with the industrial revolution when factory work lured people away from an agrarian way of life into the rapidly growing cities. The annual return home reunited them with family and friends for the celebrations. Only by train could the journey be accomplished within the few days break. At the same time, trains allowed the rapid shipment of materials and foods from manufacturing centers to stores in every corner of the country to be sold as both gifts and luxury ingredients for festive dishes. Perhaps the hustle and bustle of moving all those people and goods by train at Christmas time cemented a connection in the collective memory.

Railroad companies quickly recognized the advertising potential of Christmas. An 1895 Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad ad showed Santa giving toys to children on a sleeper train. Popular culture too embraced the subject. Any long journey, especially at Christmas, was by train. This became especially true during WW2 when railroads enabled hundreds of thousands of GIs to make true the dream of "I’ll Be Home For Christmas". The 1954 movie “White Christmas” picked up the WW2 theme, with the overnight train connections between New York City and Vermont necessary for the plot. The reality was not so rosy. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing relentlessly since, automobiles and planes replaced the primacy of passenger railroads, and the Christmas-train connection began to fade. Instead, it became part of nostalgia, the longing for a simpler life.

Though fewer people made their Christmas journeys by train, they still loved running them in miniature around their tree. Where does that tradition come from? Most likely from 19 th century Pennsylvania where German immigrants traditionally laid out elaborate miniature villages, the so called “putz,” under their trees. Toy trains had been part of these miniature landscapes, but got a new lease of life when mass-produced toy trains, running on rails and propelled by clockwork, steam or electricity became affordable. Originally imported by German firms such as Bing, American brands like Ives and Lionel soon got in on the act. The models were taken out every Christmas and set up on the floor. Adding trains to the layout made for easy gift giving, year after year. In the 1950s toy trains reached the zenith of their popularity though travel on real trains was dwindling.

Some short-line passenger railroads were preserved to become tourist trains. They soon began running Christmas trains to generate income during the slow winter months. This tradition received injections of fresh enthusiasm with the 1985 publication of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, then the 2004 movie. Many of these tourist trains now had a clear destination – the “North Pole”. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 the MVRS chartered P&W’s passenger equipment for its North Pole Express. This took passengers from Worcester MA to Millbury MA senior center, transformed into the North Pole (See photo below). Santa and his elves greeted passengers with hot chocolate amongst festive decorations including multiple toy trains beneath multiple Christmas trees.

 Where might you find a Christmas train in New England this year?  The 2021 choices include:

 The Tinseliner, Berkshire Scenic Railroad, North Adams MA
 Connecticut Trolley Museum Winterfest & Tunnel of Lights, East Windsor CT
 Shoreline Trolley Winter Wonderland, East Haven CT
 North Pole Express, Valley Railroad, Essex CT
 The Train to Christmas Town, Cape Cod Central RR, Buzzards Bay MA
 Blackstone Valley Polar Express Train, Woonsocket RI
 Santa Express Train, Hobo Railroad, Lincoln NH
 Holiday Express, Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, Portland ME

Remember to check each organization’s website for running dates, availability and up-to-date COVID-19 policies.



 Santa and helpers on the MVRS North Pole in Millbury, December 2004 (photographer: Dirk Hertel).


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Revised: Dec 2021