Every December we travel north to Williams, Arizona, and ride the Polar Express. Grand Canyon Railway’s mystic “midnight” train ride is based on the classic children’s book made even more popular by the 2004 animated film starring Tom Hanks. Both of my children grew up watching the film; for more than ten years the whistle of that magic steam train beckoned from the television screen throughout winter break.
Until last year, when neither Abbey, 14, nor Gabriel, 9, wanted to watch it.
In the movie, a young boy who’s beginning to doubt whether Santa is real catches a ride to the North Pole, where he meets Father Christmas in person and learns once more to believe. And for those of us who still believe, the enchanted train in Williams speeds through a time-warp and arrives within an hour at that very same North Pole, where elves dance in the snow and wave from Santa’s sleigh.
On that night in December we wait at the icy depot, stamping our feet, cheeks stinging and breath clouding the air. We climb aboard and sing carols, sip hot cocoa and wait for Santa to arrive. When he boards, he’ll walk slowly down the aisle, presenting each wide-eyed child with the gift of a silver bell.
I have a collection of these silver bells, each strung with a loop of crimson ribbon, each ringing chime a ghost from Christmas past. I have a snow globe from the Polar Express gift shop that sits unshaken on a closet shelf, its wintry Christmas scene preserved within the glass bubble, like a memory.
The year she turned eleven, my daughter said, “I know about Santa, Mom. I’ve known for a while.”
But that was okay, because Gabriel was then only six. Abbey was simply on the other side of the magic now, watching with affection as her little brother pressed his nose against the glass, peering silently out the window as the moonlit trees rushed by, waiting to see the amber glow of a frosted Christmas village.
There are family traditions that for us will never fade. Timeless things, like stringing lights on the Christmas tree, stirring fudge on Christmas Eve, and opening presents on Christmas morning in pajamas and robes, wrapped in the warm candied scent of gingerbread drifting from candles.
Then there are traditions bound to fade. Childhood things, like tracking Santa’s sleigh in the flash of stars, throwing glittery oats like confetti across the lawn to light a path for the reindeer, and setting out a plate of milk and cookies on the cold brick hearth.
It’s nearly winter, and tomorrow we’ll drive to Williams and ride the Polar Express. When night falls we’ll hand our tickets to a conductor who will solemnly punch holes in the shape of a letter and hand them back. We’ll open our songbooks and sing carols on the way to the North Pole and drink hot chocolate delivered by sprightly chefs. One of us will still peer out the window, nose pressed against the glass. Waiting, but perhaps also wondering.
When Santa comes we’ll ring our silver bells and cheer at the tinny echoes. Then the children will tuck their bells into the pockets of their winter robes, knowing there will always be another.
I will hold onto mine a little longer.