Onboard the Polar Express

Santa Claus climbs aboard the Polar Express. Photo courtesy of the Gonzalez family.

Santa Claus climbs aboard the Polar Express. Photo courtesy of the Gonzalez family.

By Rachel Bosworth

“Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are things we can’t see.”

– “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg

When you were a child, the magic of Christmas was not in the gifts you received, but in the story of Santa Claus and the meaning of the holiday itself. Christmas Eve was a mystery, for as you were sound asleep is when the legendry Kris Kringle came down your chimney, or through the front door with a magic key, to leave presents for all of the good boys and girls around the world. While the magic may fade as children grow up, it comes back again as parents celebrate that wonder once more with their own children.

There are few places in the United States where you can take a train to the North Pole, but only one where you can take an enchanted trip to meet Santa and his elves by trolley. The North Fork Trolley Company’s Polar Express — inspired by the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, and the subsequent film — departs Riverhead every year for a memorable journey children only dream of. Now in their fourth season with thousands of families boarding in November and December, three parents shared their heartwarming memories of what for some is now an annual holiday tradition.

Hollie Wuestman-Garrido, of Huntington Station, took her soon-to-be five-year-old son, Alex, and her friend’s four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Casey, in December 2015 on the Polar Express for the first time. “My son had never seen the movie, so it was great that they told the story,” she recalled. “When we arrived at the North Pole, my son truly believed it.”

The story of “The Polar Express” — a Caldecott Medal winner for Illustration of a Children’s Book — centers on a young boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who hears a magical train whistle roar one night, leading him to a conductor and train that spirits him to the North Pole. There, he is selected by Santa Claus to receive the first gift of Christmas — selecting a reindeer sleigh bell, which signifies true belief in the spirit of the holiday season.

Watching Alex so in awe of making it to the North Pole and being able to meet Mr. and Mrs. Claus was a happy sight for Garrido. It was an intimate gathering, as each trolley holds up to 30 passengers. With hot cocoa and chocolate chip cookies for the ride, it was a sweet treat for children and parents alike

Thirteen adults and 11 children in Jennifer Brzeniski-Mccormack’s group last year donned matching Christmas pajamas for their voyage to meet Santa. “All of the families that went have grown up together, and now our kids are friends growing up together,” said the Yaphank resident of the boys and girls ages two to six who attended. “We try to do something with them all around the holidays. Our group expands a little every year, so we look forward to the new memories.”

Debora Gonzalez shared her experience with her nine-year-old granddaughter, Amiya, and her nephew, also nine, Christopher. “My granddaughter said when she first saw Santa, she had butterflies in her stomach because she knew it was the real Santa!” It was a genuine joy, she said, to watch the children experience and believe the magic of Santa Claus and the North Pole, an innocence everyone wishes they could hold onto for just a little bit longer.

As far as family traditions go, there are some that will happily stay forever. Garrido says her large Italian family celebrates Christmas Eve at her parents’ home and opens gifts from fellow family members together. They then head back across the street to their own home to leave out reindeer food and milk and cookies for Santa and his trusty steeds. Gonzalez hosts a big breakfast in her Yaphank home on Christmas morning with the whole family, and sometimes friends too, before opening gifts together in the living room.

From holiday greetings by the conductor handing out golden tickets to the children, to the final arrival at the North Pole, the magical story of the Polar Express is an experience both children and parents can truly enjoy. As the story says, the bell still rings for all who truly believe.


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