It was a train ride. And they sang Christmas songs. And local celebrities read “The Polar Express.” Then the train stopped and picked up Santa Claus, and he gave out gifts.
So, yeah, the kids loved it.
On Sunday, in what has become a special holiday tradition in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company hosted its fourth annual “North Pole Express,” an event for underserved children and families from a variety of local youth charities.
About 600 kids took the sunset train ride from South Station to Readville, where the big man himself, Santa Claus, boarded the train, sending the youngsters rushing to the windows at the sight of his red suit.
On the ride to Readville, a host of local VIPs in each train car — Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, first ladies Diane Patrick and Angela Menino, and former New England Patriot Jermaine Wiggins, to name a few — read Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved tale of Christmas belief, and then the children wrote letters to Santa to deliver to the man himself.
‘I grew up reading “The Polar Express,” so when they asked me to be a guest reader, I said “yes” before they finished explaining what it was.’
Lucy Daniel, 5, wrote that she wanted a Barbie Dreamhouse. Her 4-year-old brother, Eli, wrote simply: “Lucy is bad.”
In the car where Harrison was manning the microphone, there was a raucous atmosphere. She confessed to being as excited as the kids.
“I grew up reading ‘The Polar Express,’ so when they asked me to be a guest reader, I said ‘yes’ before they finished explaining what it was,” said Harrison, who won gold at the London Olympics in 2012, and passed around her medal for the children to hold and hang around their necks.
The children’s reactions to the medal were “cool” and “heavy,” while their parents said, “Don’t swing it at your brother,” and “You better take this back.”
On the train ride back to South Station, Harrison led the children in her car through several loud renditions of holiday songs. They sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and when it was over, the kids shouted “Let’s sing it again!”
They did. Then they yelled “Let’s sing it again!” At which point, Harrison politely steered them to “Jingle Bells.”
But as Santa made his way through the train, picking up his letters and handing out small, yellow footballs, one family at the very end of the train was not looking forward to his arrival. That is because little Maggie Rae, a 20-month-old in pink pajamas from Quincy, is scared to death of the big man. “Don’t even say his name,” said her grandmother, Mary Rae.
Yet she, like all the children, was enjoying the simple act of riding on a train. That was half the excitement, parents said, as the children pressed their noses to the glass and called out landmarks. As the train passed behind the South Bay Center in Dorchester, there was a chorus of children shouting, “Target!”
It was a festive day for the train staff as well, said Paul O’Brien, the conductor. Many of them dressed in costumes for the children, including Rudolph, Frosty, and a gingerbread man, while O’Brien wore his “fancy” conductor uniform, including a leather vest, pocket watch, and an old-timey lantern with a candle burning inside.
As he walked through South Station, children just stared at him, as if he had burst from the pages of “The Polar Express.”