PALESTINE — In 1985, the book “Polar Express” was published. It won several literary awards and has become a modern-day Christmas classic. This status was further cemented with the release of the 2004 film by the same name. The story pulls at the heartstrings of the readers and viewers, asking them if they still believe in Christmas, and if they can still hear the jingles of the bells on Santa’s sleigh.
Just a couple hours east of Fort Hood, you can go and take a ride on the Polar Express yourself and live the story. My grandson and I took the road trip to Palestine looking for some holiday adventure, and we were not disappointed.
While I was expecting a Christmas-themed train ride, what I got was a fully immersive show centered on the story in the book and the film.
The train ride and the experience as a whole are put on by the Texas State Railroad, an organization that offers steam-engine powered train rides year round through East Texas. They are experts at giving riders an experience they will remember for a lifetime. Their winter offering, the Polar Express, is no different.
The entire train depot on the edge of town in Palestine is festively decorated and lit with holiday themes. Even with the pandemic, having to wear masks, and social distancing, the attraction was filled with people from all over Texas and people from out of state.
A few minutes before the train left, we handed the attendant our tickets and boarded the train. The nostalgia hits you as soon as you board. The classic early 1900s first class, dining and even coach cars, will have you thinking fondly of simpler times.
I didn’t do a ton of research before this trip. We actually went on a last-minute whim. So I was very surprised to find that the hour-long ride is actually a show on board the train too!
The attendants are all in attire that is appropriate to the period depicted in the book and movie, and they lead singing, dancing and hold huge books up for the passengers to see as the story is read over a sound system installed on the train. They will have you singing and dancing in your seat in not time.
At the half way point of the trip, shortly after the story is finished being told, the train slows down and enters a clearing … in the North Pole! Santa’s house is there, and he is standing outside with a bunch of elves waiting to board the train. The train started its way back and Santa made his way from car to car handing out bells to all the children, both big and small.
If you are familiar with the story, you will know the significance of the bell. Offered whatever he wants for Christmas, the boy in the story takes a simple bell from Santa’s sleigh, but on the way home, he loses the bell because he has a hole in his pocket. He is surprised on Christmas morning to see a small box under the tree, left there by Santa with another bell that is exactly the same.
This passage from the book strikes me every time I read it: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.” Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.
If you are having trouble hearing the bells of Christmas, head over to www.texasstaterailroad.net for more information and to purchase tickets.