We love The Polar Express. I want to be very clear about this. We have been four times now, so they must be doing something right. Yes, Ruby was suspicious last time, but we fixed that this year and went at night! No more noticing things! And yeah, Edward walked away from last evening saying that it was the best night he ever had. Really, it was that good. For those of you not familiar, The Polar Express is a book by Chris Van Allsburg, which became a movie starring Tom Hanks, and is now a popular local Christmas event all over the world. In an attempt to recreate the magic of the movie, kids are boarded onto a train where chefs sing and give them hot chocolate and treats, and the train takes them to the North Pole to meet Santa, who gives them a bell and sends them on their way. It’s pretty amazing, and the horde of volunteer elves are fantastic, greeting each (name-tagged) child by name and imbuing the place with so much Christmas cheer that even Rudolph’s nose couldn’t cut through it.
I also have to say, much of the reason the event was so successful for our family this year was due to some major parental quick-thinking, as our children looked up with sorrowful eyes and told us that it wasn’t real. And my feeling is, if you’re going to commit to an undertaking of this magnitude, you need to commit! This is not the time or place for the details to get away from you. The magic of Christmas is on the line here. I have no problem with households that do not do Santa, or that just kind of let kids think what they will, but at an event designed to bring magic to life, you don’t want the seams showing.
For instance, as we entered the long hallway leading to the event we were immediately in the presence of magic. The conductors came and punched our tickets, we got our name tags, joy was palpable, and at the end of the hallway the double glass doors were fully covered in bright wrapping paper. They would let one train car’s worth of people through, and then close those doors off. What was happening behind those doors? Magic! It was beautiful! And then we got on board the train, sat down at a table, and my kids looked out the window and asked “Who are all those people in the red shirts and elf hats?”
Sure enough, right outside our train car, we could see the previous group of kids being led from “The North Pole” up to see Santa. Those double glass doors were not wrapped in paper, and with the darkness outside and the bright lights within, it was like a spotlight shining onto a piece of magic that should not have been. Luckily the elves were tall, the children were small, and it was hard for my kids to tell what exactly was going on. I tried to come up with some explanations, like that they were ushering people IN to the train area, but they weren’t buying it. My kids knew that we had not been in that area before. Somehow it got explained away, but I sat there thinking, Really? You wrap every door in the place, but you miss the two that are between my kids and “The North Pole?” Really?
And then the train starts moving. Thanks goodness. Goodbye, secret elves that we aren’t supposed to see! Now all of our problems are solved!
“Hey!” Ruby says indignantly. She is 10. Everything she says is with some sort of indignation. “This train is going south!”
Oh dear. Why had I taught my children which way south was?! I thought in the dark she wouldn’t notice! It’s true, we were heading to the North Pole, apparently via the South Pole. I don’t think that there is anything that the good people at The Polar Express could have done about this. The toddlers on board probably had no idea that the train was technically headed away from the North Pole, except that the girl in the back of the train car was shouting it. But we reasoned that the train had to get out of town first and would then turn around. She wasn’t fully on board, knowing the layout of the city as she does, but it was time to sing and eat and so it was put aside.
We got into a singing competition with several of the other tables during The 12 Days of Christmas. We won. Obviously. The poor kid at the table across from us was holding his ears. We got our hot chocolate and cookies and candy, and things were going well, until the train reversed course. Edward stared out the window in horror and would not be drawn back into the festivities. He looked back at me, almost in tears, and told me that we were going back to the station. We hadn’t made it to the North Pole. Something had gone wrong. I assured him that, due to magic portals, we were definitely not going back the way we came, but he pointed out various landmarks to me as we passed them. We were definitely going back home. He was inconsolable for the rest of the ride.
But then, miracle of miracles, we arrived at the North Pole! He squealed in joy that we had not gone back after all, because this didn’t look like the station at all! It was brightly decorated, with dozens upon dozens of elves in red shirts and elf hats waving merrily to us as we made our way off the train car and into a magical world. A choir of young women, who were nothing less than fantastic, greeted us with songs as we entered into a room full of excitement and a man in a rocking chair read the book “The Polar Express” to us. Edward was rapt. Ruby was content. All other problems had been forgotten. And then “Santa” came out to greet us.
Look, I get it. Santas are hard to come by. At the mall, sure, dress Aunt Ethyl up as Santa, snap the photo, and be done with it. But this was The Polar Express! Couldn’t they get an old Santa? Maybe one with a real beard? Maybe one without super dark eyebrows? Both kids looked at me as he “ho-ho-ho’ed” and said, “That’s not Santa.” And what could I say? Because that wasn’t Santa. And if that wasn’t Santa, was this The North Pole?
As we climbed the steps to meet the big man himself, the final nail in the coffin of belief was hammered home for my daughter. And to me, this is the most egregious and regrettable of mistakes. The stairwell leading up to Santa was decorated, not only with garland and tinsel, but with advertisements for local businesses. And by “local” I do not mean local to the North Pole.
“What? Hannaford?” my daughter said incredulously as she held the advertisement for the local grocery store in her hands. All up and down the banister we saw ads for “Vermont” this and “Burlington” that. There is no recovering from that poor decision. I get that you need to make money. I get that you need sponsors. But there has to be a way to make that happen that does not include littering the North Pole with commercials for places our kids recognize. We saw ads in the program. Cool. Those programs/lyrics were handed out in “Vermont” before the train left. Acceptable. Put those decorations in the hallway we were in before the train ride. Put them anywhere but at the North Pole. E-mail them to us later. But what am I supposed to tell my kids about why Santa’s workshop has ads for Vermont banks hung all around? I can explain, via portals, how we are able to walk out the back door of the North Pole and suddenly be in Burlington, VT again. That seems believable. But Santa selling ad space in his house? That’s never going to fly.
As we walked home, Edward told us he had the best night ever. We had jumped through the right hoops for him, and while Santa hadn’t convinced him, he knows that Santa has helpers. He was glowing with happiness as we walked to the car. Ruby told us sadly, as we tucked her into bed later that night, that Edward had definitely liked it better than she had. Some of that was the bittersweet realization of growing up. As I said, she is 10. Things are beginning to end. And yes, so much more is beginning, but crossroads are hard places to live. And so some of her sadness was internal. Because she really wants to believe. And I just think, when someone really wants to believe, we should make it as easy as we can for them to do so.