It comes swooshing into the station in a blur of silver metal and colored lights. A brightly lit CTA train packed with children, pausing only briefly to pick up more. Sometimes it runs along the blue line, sometimes it runs along the red, brown and orange. When it comes to a full stop, Santa and his reindeer wave to the children from an open flat car in the middle. But take your snapshots fast. This is a man on a mission.
A Narrow Window of Belief
It’s Christmas. Parents with children of a certain age go to malls, department stores, country clubs and church socials to introduce their kids to Santa. He is so ubiquitous at Christmas time, the window for belief is narrow. How can Santa be in the Sears at one end of the mall and the Macy’s at the other at the same time, they ask.
The Chicago Transit Authority solves that dilemma by postulating that when Santa hits a heavily populated urban area like Chicago, he needs the help of a rapid transit system to distribute presents to all the children (and his reindeer need their union break) before they fly off to, let’s say, Norway to complete their Christmas mission.
Now He’s Here, Now He’s Gone
Now he’s here, and now he’s gone. (Check the CTA website for a time and location where Santa will be appearing near you.) My 4-year-old son and I caught up with him at the Western Avenue station last Saturday and––talk about suspending disbelief––The Santa Train arrived on time.
We scurried to find an open car. When we first squeezed in, it didn’t seem all that different from a daily commute to work. People in winter coats and earmuffs sat in the seats; a few holiday revelers wore Santa hats on their way to Christmas parties downtown. But the lighting was unusually festive. When a seat opened, and my son took it, I noticed it was covered with holly and red ornaments.
The usual drab signs for cancer treatment, abortion counseling and vocational retraining were replaced by advertisements for Tinsel Town Garbage Collection, Santa Workshop Toy Repair and, of course, a self-promotional plug: Santa Rides the Blue Line.
While I noticed the décor, my son noticed that there was a CTA elf in every car handing out candy canes. We sped through the night, and when we came to a stop, I jumped out to take a picture of Santa: and he grabbed another candy cane.
Finding The Spirit of Christmas
We never actually let my son sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what he wants for Christmas. (That occurs when we give him the Sunday supplement for Toys R Us and he says, “This one, and this one, and this one.”) He wasn’t even particularly attracted to the man. He was, instead, enthralled by the all the activity, what we sometimes call the hustle and bustle of Christmas, all laid out before him for the price of a subway token. And what I like about exposing my son to the concept of Santa in the CTA version is that it reinforces the notion Santa is a busy man––and you must find the spirit of Christmas in the people around you.
We got off the train at the Washington stop and climbed the steps into Daley Plaza where, you guessed it, another Santa was holding court. The line around Santa’s cottage at the Kris Kringle market was about 30 minutes, so my son wisely traded his place for a bar of German chocolate. At every vendor’s booth, there was a sparkling ornament, or a glistening toy that caught his eye. But the real excitement was just being there.
He was loaded up on sugar and complaints when I told him it was time to leave. We boarded a return bound train back to Western Avenue, and the slow rhythms of the ride and the CTA conductor’s voice eventually wore him down. “Next stop is Damen. Doors open on the right at Damen.” I had to carry him home asleep.
These moments are all so fleeting. And I know next year will be different, and who knows but the time will come when the luster will fall from his eyes and he won’t want to go see Santa again. But this moment will be lodged somewhere in his memory, the time when he saw Santa on an El train, and for that I will always be grateful.
Editor’s Note: The Week Behind is taking time off for the holidays. See you in 2012.