In Appalachia Santa Claus comes the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Since 1943, the Santa Special, more commonly known as the Santa Train, has traveled 110 miles through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and northeastern Tennessee to distribute loads of candy, toys and other goodies to eager bystanders, most of whom have made it a family tradition. The train typically passes through more than 30 towns delivering Christmas cheer.
This year 14-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs is joining CSX as the special guest on the 2017 Santa Train. Celebrities who have ridden the train include Amy Grant, Thompson Square, Alison Krauss, Wynonna & Naomi Judd, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt, Kree Harrison, and Kathy Mattea.
The 75th annual Santa Train will make 14 stops on November 18. Ricky Skaggs, Santa Claus and volunteers will deliver 15 tons of toys to thousands of Appalachian residents who live along the route. Train staffers throw candy, crackers, popcorn, bubble gum, cookies, stuffed animals, electronic games, hats, handmade gloves, mittens, toboggans, T-shirts, wrapping paper and other treats from the train’s caboose.
The Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce awards a Santa Train Scholarship each year to a graduating senior who attends a high school along the 110-mile Santa Train route between Kingsport, TN and Pikeville, KY. The recipient is chosen based on grade point average, extracurricular activities, financial need, work records and an advisor’s recommendation.
This year’s 2017 recipient is Hope Phillips from Union High School in Big Stone Gap, VA. The four-year scholarship is worth $5,000—$625 per semester. To date, the Kingsport Chamber has given 34 scholarships since the first scholarship was awarded in 1989, totaling $170,000.
The Santa Special was the brainchild of Kingsport, TN businessmen who wanted to show their appreciation to the people of the coalfields for their patronage throughout the year.
Santa Special officials have said that the first Santa Train pulled just one car and a meager load of gifts. It reached towns and cities that at the time had no other means of transportation. Some believe the train provided many children the only toys they received during World War II.
Joe Higgins played the role of Santa Claus in 1943-44 — the run’s first two years.