Story by Emily West // Community News Editor | Photos by Matt Masters // Photography Editor
Brenda Grizzle stood at the tracks in her khaki jacket and straight leg jeans. The day was warming, but a thick chill hung in the air. Through her clear-framed glasses, the retired farmer turned part-time seamstress watched her grandchildren, River and Slade, kick plum-sized chunks of gravel across the CSX rails.
“Be careful now, River. Don’t trip yourself up on the tracks,” she cautioned in her warm tone.
Today is special in St. Paul, Va., a coal mining community in the center of the finger of Virginia that separates Kentucky and Tennessee. For 70 years, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a southbound train bearing Santa and tons of gifts has brought a slice of Christmas cheer to thousands in this section of Appalachia.
As Grizzle knows all too well, the Santa Train is more than an icon of the region; for many families, the gifts from the rotund man in red standing on the caboose help fill kids’ stockings.
“This is the first time they ever got to see it,” Grizzle said, referring to her grandsons, still playing in the gravel. River, a brown-haired 11-year-old who stands a few inches taller than his petite grandmother, and Slade, his 6-year-old younger sibling, gathered close to her in anticipation of the train’s arrival.
“They live upstate, so they don’t get down here in the school year. This year they had a day off, and they got to come down. I thought, ‘We will go see that.’ They need to see it,” she said.
As more than 1,000 people gathered at the tracks, CSX workers strung yards and yards of yellow caution tape in an attempt to keep the crowd from getting too close to the tracks. Yet, spectators stood elbow-to-elbow, inches away from the tracks as they waited to hear the locomotive’s horn, a cue that Santa was near.
Before the train arrived, the throng grew by the hour. By 9 a.m., residents in the small town of 974 began setting up booths to sell handmade items and crafts. St. Paul, founded in the early 20thcentury, has weathered many economic downturns but maintains a certain charm. With the exception of a few chain businesses, the economic life of St. Paul is its mom-and-pop businesses – a florist, a Christian book store, a pharmacy and a hardware store.
With a captive crowd before them, a group of local cloggers took to the stage– rather, a concrete loading dock next to the tracks. Donning red Santa hats, the Center Stage Cloggers clicked and clacked their way through “Santa Train” by Patty Loveless.
“We clog every year for the Santa Train,” said Natasha Mullins, a clogger. “Everybody likes it. The kids like it. I think it’s just everyone getting together, and its tradition. Everyone likes to come out, and see who is on the train, but I think it’s mainly tradition.”
At 11:07 a.m., the Santa Train rolls into town.
Eight passenger rail cars, navy blue and polished, came slowly into view, stopping when the caboose reached the platform. When Santa appeared, he and his helpers, including members of the best-selling country duo, Thompson Square, began chucking presents from the train as the crowd formed a Christmas mosh pit.
The gifts were large and small. Bags of Doritos were tossed. Oatmeal crème pies sailed like Frisbees. Scarves and knitted hats fell in colored showers. Hundreds of plush toy reindeer were sent flying toward the outstretched arms of kids sitting on their parents’ shoulders.
With his white-gloved index finger, Santa pointed to select children to claim some of the bigger presents in his bag.
One of the children he pointed to was a 6-year-old girl. He crooked his finger to get her attention and the girl’s mother, holding her daughter on her hip, reached with a free hand to grab Santa’s gift.
Her prize was a hot pink and turquoise play makeup set, complete with a mirror and other accessories.
Many people filled trash bags full of Santa’s loot, while one woman filled her blue flannel shirt until she, too, bulged like the man in red.
“I have seven grandbabies, and they all got something today,” said Delmen Ramey, a longtime fan of the train. “I have been coming to the Santa Train for 30 or 40 years, and this is one day we set aside just for this.”
The McGraw family from Norton, Va., is much like the Rameys. Stephanie witnessed her blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl get excited about the day. Not to mention, all the pieces of candy and stuffed animals she received. But presents are not the only element of Christmas that matters to her family.
“I know Christmas to a lot of people has slipped away, but to us it is still one of the major holidays,” McGraw said. “It means a lot to me because of Jesus, and it has nothing to do with presents. My daughter loves presents, of course, but we try to make sure that [religion] is part of her life too.”
In addition to presents from the train, residents were also given food and other treats from Food City, and the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, two of the Santa Train’s sponsors. CSX is also an official sponsor.
“A lot of these people are loyal and shop with us day in and day out,” said Henry Maggard, Food City manager in Coeburn, Va. “This is just another way to show our appreciation. It’s a little tough with the economy and uncertainty [and] a lot of people are out of work and unstable. I think it brings them a sense of hope and it’s a tradition. They can count on it being here.”
Grizzle understands struggle. Her daughter works two jobs at O’Reilly Auto Parts and Hardee’s, taking the role of the main provider of the family because her husband has been out of work for more than five years.
“I asked the bigger grandchild what he wanted for Christmas, and he didn’t say anything,” Grizzle said. “I told him, ‘I know what you want, and how about if I help Momma with it?’ He said, ‘Granny that would be great.’ He know (sic) they couldn’t afford it.”
Freddie Solce, a retired law enforcement officer, stood in his leather hat and reflective sun glasses, watching the people around him. He said he sees how the region has been affected by the lack of a thriving economy.
“They have shut down so many mines and so many people are out of work,” Solce said. “It’s the worst thing they could have done. If it continues on, it will cripple this part of the world. There won’t be anything left of this part of the world. Southwest Virginia just won’t be anything without the coal mines.”
But on this day, the economy is forgotten, for a while, as the crowd’s spirit is refreshed by a celebration at the train tracks. All too soon, the locomotive sounds its horn, and the train cars slowly chug out of town, as Santa waves goodbye.
Until he returns next year.