Text and Photography by Bill Buchanan
That comment, appearing in a feature story by Eric Zorn in the 1988 Lands' End Christmas catalog, pretty much catches the long-standing link between trains and Christmas.
You don't have to be a rail fan to know the link exists. Lands' End, one of America's leading mail-order retailers, wasn't pitching its products only to railroad enthusiasts when it put a drawing of a snowy midwestern small-town depot on its catalog cover that year. Completing the scene was a stream1ined California Zephyr, just departing the platform, as recently arrived passengers and waiting friends greeted each other in the warm glow of Christmas lights.
"Rolling Home for Christmas," the article was headlined, and the title said it all. Readers would instantly sense the role of the train in reuniting friends and family as the country again set aside business as usual to celebrate its biggest holiday.
And the thing is, that link remains reasonably strong years after cars and planes took over most of the U.S. travel market. Christmas is still a good time to take a train somewhere special: to a nearby big city for a round of old-fashioned holiday shopping downtown, perhaps, or to a reunion with far-away relatives.
Our family recommends either, having done both. Last year, my wife, five-year-old daughter, and I took a Capitol Corridor train 70 miles to San Francisco for a day of shopping. Two years before that, we rode the California Zephyr and Capitol Limited from California to Ohio to a celebration of my grandmother's lO0th birthday on Christmas Eve. We enjoyed both journeys so much that a train trip, when we can swing it, has become part of our Christmas tradition.
We don't ride just for the sake of sentiment. The trip to San Francisco's Union Square was an experiment to see if the fun of taking a train, and the pleasure of avoiding Bay Area freeways busy with holiday traffic, made up for the inconvenience of hauling Christmas packages around on public transit and sticking to someone else's schedule.
It did. Our daughter, Megan, was thrilled by the Capitols, which are new, clean, bi-level, and easy to use. ("I like to have cinnamon rolls and orange juice on the train and go on the bridges," she told me later that day. A lifelong tradition might have begun on that trip.) On our trip down, my wife and I used the time to plan which stores to visit, and on our return she was able to doze.
Megan colored, played, looked out the window, and decorated Christmas cards as I wrote them at our table (the Capitols thoughtfully include dining-car like seating in part of their coaches). We were able to talk face to face about the day we'd had, or what we were seeing outside the window.
We arrived home feeling as if we'd done some thing more with one of our few pre-Christmas days together than just fight crowds and traffic. It's the trip we're most likely to repeat in later years.
The cross-country trip was obviously more ambitious. We planned it a year in advance and saved enough money to afford a bedroom.
We boarded the Zephyr in Davis, California, prepared to turn our bedroom into a small outpost of Christmas (careful, of course, not to harm the room). We put up a couple of cardboard decorations and had Christmas carols ready to play on a small cassette player. We even bought a string of 20 battery-powered Christmas lights, which we taped to the inside frame of our window and turned on after dark. We got off at Sparks, Nevada, that evening to see how they looked from the outside and thought they looked pretty special against the silver car and night sky.
In an antique store, my wife had found an abridged copy of A CHRISTMAS CAROL that Western Pacific had given to its holiday passengers many decades ago. We read from it each night at bedtime, with all the lights out except one, but with the curtains open so that we could still see the winter scene outside.
We looked for the Christmas decorations in the cities and towns we passed, and got off at more than one stop simply to sample a Christmastime chill that we don't get in California.
By the time we arrived in Ohio, we felt refreshed and steeped in holiday spirit. We could think of no better way to travel to a family event celebrating the long life of a cherished relative who recalled a few Christmastime trips by train herself.
If you want to experience this link between trains and Christmas yourself, I suggest the following:
For a day trip, choose a train with a reliable schedule. Using long-haul trains to cover short distances can be frustrating if bad weather and sold-out consists make them run late, reducing your time at your destination and causing you to rush.
Make sure your destination is easy to reach from the station. Our San Francisco trip required an Amtrak bus connection from Emeryville across the Bay Bridge, plus a walk of several blocks from the bus stop to Union Square. No real crime concerns there, but stations aren't usually in the best part of town, so be sure there's no problem reaching the station after dark to go home.
Also, it's best to have a geographically compact destination. You're less likely to miss the convenience of your car that way.
Consider and explore package deals, and maybe make a weekend out of it.
Watch for special attractions. The weekend we took the Capitols, Santa Claus visited riders and gave treats to kids. Nearby museums or tourist railroads may have special trains.
Don't assume you have to live near a huge city to make a trip worthwhile. This year, my daughter and I plan to take a train just 30 minutes east to Sacramento, shop down town for a couple of hours for her mom, and then return home. We'll do it in an afternoon. And we'll probably share cinnamon rolls and orange juice while the train rolls home over the long, low Yolo Bypass bridge.
A California native, Bill Buchanan is a newspaper editor and writer. His grandfather's stories prompted Bill's interest in railroading.