There’s something pure and sweet about a child’s belief in Santa. My twin granddaughters Madalyn and Meredith turned three in March, and this Christmas they’re at the perfect age. In their eyes, I see joy and wonder, stardust and magic without the doubt their seven-year-old brother Rhys is already beginning to feel.

This week we had the opportunity to experience something with all three of them that stoked the twins’ excitement and prolonged the magic for Rhys. The first time The Polar Express left the Palestine Depot for the year, we were on board.

One Week Before Our Train Ride

The week before our trip, I picked up the book The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg at the Tyler Barnes and Noble. We had Polar Express day where we read the book, went on an imaginary train ride, practiced handing the conductor our tickets and made Santa hats with craft foam and cotton balls.

The book's main character is a boy who is beginning to question whether Santa is real or is just something adults made up. He struggles with his doubts until the moment he meets real Santa Clause.

When I told the kids we were going on the real Polar Express the girls were all in, but Rhys was skeptical. “Is it like a real train or a little train?” he asked, and you could see the wheels turning.

He knew grown-ups sometimes try to over-sell things, and he wasn’t going to be taken in. We watched the Warner Brother’s movie and made plans to wear pajamas for the real train ride Thursday.

All Aboard

All doubts disappeared when they saw the train. At the Victorian-style Palestine Depot, the restored vintage locomotive and its cars stretched as far as their eyes could see. Trees around the depot were decorated in lights and loudspeakers at the concession stand played music from the movie.

We could see chefs in puffy white hats preparing our hot cocoa inside cars decorated in garland and lights. We all felt the enchantment even before we stepped on board.

All three children were wide-eyed as the train lurched out of the station and the fun began. Our car attendants danced and sang as they served cocoa and cookies. We read the story from an oversized book and watched for wolves out the train windows.

Anticipation built as we neared The North Pole at the Rusk Depot. The kids bounced in their chairs as it came into view. “I don’t know if that’s really Santa,” Rhys said as he squinted through the glass.

Santa boarded the train with his elves and made his way to our car. He stopped and talked to each child, asking what they wanted for Christmas and handing them a bell. Rhys held the bell to his ear and shook it, then his eyes lit up.

That was when I knew his belief would last for at least one more Christmas. That was the real magic of The Polar Express.

Making East Texas Better

For children, everything about the Christmas season is fresh and exciting. They get swept up in the secrets and draw comfort from traditions. The Polar Express allowed us all for an hour to completely immerse ourselves in a world where anything can happen.

Perhaps the most impressive thing to me was the fact each one of the passengers on the train was riding for free. Texas State Railroad regularly donates gift passes for train rides to charitable causes.

Before they open The Polar Express to the public, Texas State Railroad invites the media, supporters and groups like Breckenridge Village and Andrew’s Center to participate in a soft opening.  Kids and adults who might not otherwise have the chance to ride the train and experience the magic. It’s definitely an experience I hope can become one of our family traditions for many years to come.