drawing of Megan Kirby with glasses sitting with Santa Claus
A visit with that plus-sized king who looks great in red. Credit: Megan Kirby

My secret Chicago talent is that I always catch the Chicago Transit Authority’s Holiday Train. All over the city, the train finds me. Commuting home from work. Meeting my friends at a dive bar. On my way to a show. If the ride occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, chances are I’m going to pull up to the station in Santa’s entourage.  

The CTA’s holiday-themed trains and busses tradition began in 1992, when transit workers posted a “Happy Holidays” sign on an out-of-service Blue Line train that they were using to transport food donations to hunger organizations across the city. The phenomenon has become more elaborate over the years. You’ll know the train when you see it: cars decked out in lights and banners, with Santa himself waving from an open-air flatcar in the middle. (One wonders, what exactly does he witness while riding through those frigid underground tunnels?)

2020 robbed us of so many things, including the Holiday Train. But absence makes the heart grow three sizes, and now that the train is back (marketed officially as the Allstate CTA Holiday Train and Bus), I was excited to put my luck to the test.

This year, the CTA wants you to know that Santa hired Ella the Elf, a new “spokes-elf” who is essentially the Anthony Fauci of the Holiday Train. Together, she and Santa set some COVID guidelines to keep everyone safe. Masks. Social distancing. No Santa selfies. I trust Ella the Elf instinctually. I would vote for her as alderwoman if she ran in my ward.

I’m not alone in my Holiday Train devotion. The CTA website sells Holiday Train ornaments and sweaters. Every holiday season, my texts and DMs ping with selfies of my friends riding the train. These dispatches always fill me with wild enthusiasm. I missed them a lot in 2020. On December 7, 2021, my friend Robin texted me a photo as she rode on the Holiday Train. “Oh my god HOLIDAY LUCK,” she texted.

The CTA doesn’t sell this particular ornament but there are plenty of Chicago-themed tree decorations for sale at their gift shop.

When the holiday train pulls up unexpectedly, you really do feel like the luckiest person in Chicago. Here you are, waiting for cigarette smoke to billow out of a train door. Instead, a magical carriage of seasonal delight pulls up, absolutely pumping Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Santa knew that in the whole city, your platform was the purest of heart. It’s the only time you ever see dour-faced rush-hour commuters burst into laughter. Businessmen clap their hands like toddlers witnessing a magic trick. Oh, the joy! To wave at Santa from a rat-infested train tunnel! To come aboard, to glittering lights and poles wrapped red and white. To reach your destination and be gifted a mini candy cane from a CTA worker with elf ears.

With Robin’s warning, I figured I could see the train pass by my building. I threw on my Crocs and scurried outside—and there it was! Flashing red and green, obscured by tree branches. I took a truly horrible photo, far away and out of focus, like a snapshot your cryptozoologist uncle swears is Bigfoot.

My seasonal depression usually makes her debut in December. Part of the reason I like Christmas is that the sadness is kinda baked in. No other holiday has songs so rife with heartbreaker proclamations like “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” 

An unnecessarily tragic fact of my life is that December 25 is my dead mom’s birthday. She really liked the pageantry of Christmas, the lights and the props. Now, in December, I keep a photo from her fifth birthday on my bedside table. She’s blowing out the candles. I like that holiday rituals leave space for nostalgia, even if it hurts. It’s one of the few times of the year where I don’t fight against it. I just let it chill for a moment, and warm its paws in front of the Fireplace For Your Home video I stream on loop until spring.

The next time the train came by, I vowed I would be on it. I refreshed the CTA Train Tracker obsessively, looking for the telltale candy cane icon that announces the Holiday Train’s approach. Around 4:30 PM, I could see that the train would hit my station in 15 minutes. I could make it! Coat? Zipped. Shoes? Laced. A quick bathroom run, don’t dawdle, Megan, and—plop! In my festive panic, I dropped my phone straight into the toilet.

This year, my Christmas miracle is that my iPhone is waterproof.

By the time I dried off and disinfected my phone, I couldn’t make the train. But I headed out anyway. If I stood on the corner, Santa would pass directly overhead. Outside, the sky started spitting snow. I felt pretty crummy about my piss-soaked phone. I sulked near an alley entrance, hands shoved into my pockets.

Then the train approached, shining so bright in the dark. And there he was! Santa, in the flesh! I waved frantically, all my angst melting away in the radiance of his presence. In a flash, the train was gone. I turned to a man who had stopped on the sidewalk next to me, and I said, “BEAUTIFUL!!!!” We laughed together.

I signed a lease once because there was a framed photo of Santa in the hallway. The building’s budget and location fit my needs, but mostly, I was beckoned forth by Santa’s winking grin. Surely a building with Mr. Claus in their permanent art collection must be full of year-round cheer. 

It ended up being the worst apartment I ever lived in, but my devotion for Santa remained. He’s a plus-sized king who looks great in red and wants to give me presents. He thrives in the spotlight. He’s the most approachable celebrity in the game. You’re expected to clap and cheer when he draws near. Santa really is that bitch.

In one of our Zoom sessions, I told my therapist that I thought if I rode the Holiday Train, my depression would go away. I was only half joking. That evening, walking along the tracks with my fingers crossed for a glimpse of the train, I realized that 2021 is the 10-year anniversary of the last Christmas I spent with my mom. Those double digits feel impossible. I stopped at a corner and stared up at the tracks, but they stayed empty.

A few days later, on a Trader Joe’s run with my sister, we saw the Holiday Train pass in the distance. We both screamed. Somehow, Kara managed to keep her Mini Cooper on the road.

Did you know there’s a song about the Holiday Train? In 2009, the song “CTA X-Mas Train” by the Snow Angels was picked by Chicago Tribune readers as a “new holiday classic” in a holiday song contest. This ode to festive public transportation included the lines “CTA Christmas Train / I can’t believe that I feel this way / about that train.” I have never related to a holiday song more. 

The Snow Angels perform “CTA X-Mas Train” on the Chic-A-Go-Go show, originally broadcast in the 2000s on CAN TV.

Despite my best efforts, I had not gotten my body onto the Holiday Train by mid-December. On the morning of December 12, I headed downtown to manifest my goals. The night before, I showed up at a friend’s apartment with a bottle of Fireball “as a joke.” The aftereffects weren’t so funny the following morning. As I contemplated my hangover, I wondered: is it somehow less authentic to seek out the Holiday Train? Will my joy feel hollow if we don’t meet by chance? But then I thought, “you’re allowed to stack the odds of your own happiness.”

As a 2021 COVID precaution, the Holiday Train completed special weekend Loop runs. This prevents crowding, and guarantees it’s easy to catch the train on one of its many circles. It’s honestly a good system, and they should keep this route in non-pandemic years, too.

I met up with two friends and we headed to a Brown Line platform. We waited around three minutes until the Holiday Train pulled into the station, blasting the most frantic Christmas song of all time, Destiny’s Child’s “8 Days of Christmas.” The doors opened and an elf beckoned us forward. Santa laughed and waved from his open-air platform. We put on our masks. And we climbed aboard. The ride didn’t end the pandemic. It didn’t cure my winter depression. It didn’t even fix my hangover. But it did make my afternoon, and for now, that’s enough.

What is luck anyway, besides the ability to recognize when things are going your way? I feel lucky when I walk through the neighborhood all aglow with lights and garlands. I feel lucky when Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” comes up on a playlist. I feel lucky when I wake up and see the photo of my mom blowing out her candles, her whole life ahead of her. And on Christmas morning, when I stirred my coffee with the candy cane I saved from the Holiday Train, that felt lucky too.