The inside of the train is like a holiday booze cruise. Credit: Samantha Bailey for Chicago Reader

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“Ho! Ho! Ho! All aboard Santa’s express train!”

If you’re lucky, then you’ve taken a ride on the CTA holiday train. You know, the one decked in colorful blinking lights that blasts Christmas music from the overhead speakers while Santa Claus sits in his open-air sleigh between train cars surrounded by reindeer figures. It’s hard to miss it, right? I’ve never been on it. 

This year, I was determined to catch that damn train. I wanted to write the feel-good Christmas story Chicagoans deserve about the train that’s been spreading holiday cheer and terrorizing innocent commuters for 30 years. This, however, is not that story.

After a hiatus because of the pandemic, the train made its triumphant comeback this year with only a few changes. Unlike previous years, the Chicago Transit Authority provided time frames for when the holiday train would be available, as opposed to specific times to prevent large crowds from gathering at stations. That made the search a bit trickier. 

Santa’s express train, as the elves call it, travels the city for the month of December, alternating between train lines as an equal opportunity publicity stunt. On certain days, for example, the holiday train allegedly takes the Pink Line route through my neighborhood. 

A few days ago I waited for the holiday train at the 18th Pink Line stop. According to the CTA, the train would arrive between 3 and 6 PM. After 30 minutes, I was frustrated (and cold) so I hopped on a non-holiday train headed downtown. The doors closed. That’s when I heard it. The sounds of holiday cheer came from the opposite direction. I was on the wrong side of the platform. 

As the days passed and I waited at stations with no luck, I still had lingering questions. So I e-mailed a CTA spokesperson. My questions, I thought, were basic and grounded in genuine journalistic curiousity: How long does it take to decorate the holiday train? How much does the holiday train cost? “I was wondering,” I wrote, “if I would be able to interview any of the workers that help set up the holiday train, perhaps even Santa?” 

Six day later, the city responded. They avoided my questions like the mayor’s office does when I ask about the police budget. 

The CTA insisted that the cost for decorating the train was minimal. “The costs for creating and running the CTA Holiday Train are very minimal,” they wrote. For the third time in a row, Allstate covered “the minimal costs for decorating and operating the Holiday Fleet this year. Also, CTA recycles and reuses its decorations from year-to-year. Some decorations have to be replaced each year, but for a minimal cost.” The CTA declined to comment on exactly how much minimal is.

The CTA also told me that the holiday train was born in 1992 when a “Season’s Greetings from the CTA” sign was placed on the front of an out-of-service Blue Line train. The train was used to deliver food to charities and as the years went on, they added a flatbed car for Santa and more decorations. 

In 1996, because of its popularity, the CTA finally allowed passengers inside and expanded the route to all eight rail lines. Meal delivery to charities continued in the form of food baskets assembled by CTA workers and distributed to two dozen local organizations. The CTA wrote that 600 food baskets get delivered annually and more than 9,000 have been distributed over the years. The CTA would not tell us which specific organizations receive donations. 

I was most flabbergasted that my request to interview Santa was ignored. (The CTA did answer one question about him, that “the Santa is also a member of CTA personnel.”) 

I dug through old news clips to see if anyone was lucky enough to get more answers about the holiday train. The Chicago Tribune published a feature on the holiday bus in 2016. In it, the reporter wrote that the holiday bus, which carries its own Santa and elf, sprung from a rivalry between CTA train and bus drivers. A CTA spokesperson told the Tribune only “model employees” were chosen to work the holiday train or bus, and that “being an elf is an honor.” It’s unclear whose arm the reporter twisted for that story. 

When I tweeted about my dismay, I soon found out I wasn’t the only reporter struggling to get answers from the city about the holiday train. Megan Kirby, who writes the Inkling column for the Reader, and NBC5 reporter Molly Walsh were both unable to get a response from the CTA. “I’m really gonna have to FOIA Santa’s nice and naughty lists aren’t I,” tweeted Walsh. 

This was an honest attempt to shine some positive light on a city initiative. I was stonewalled.  Here I should note the obvious: nothing motivates journalists more than when city officials dodge questions. If they wouldn’t give me Santa, then I’d go find him myself. 

The author was not granted an interview with Santa. Credit: Samantha Bailey for Chicago Reader

With Christmas fast approaching, the holiday train does a special run around the Loop for stragglers, like me, who can’t find it anywhere else. On a cold winter morning, I stood on the platform at Washington/Wabash patiently waiting next to rambunctious toddlers escaping their parent’s grasp. One parent told me he had been looking for the holiday train all month long.

Then it happened. There he was. The holiday train rolled into the station, and I saw Santa perched on his sleigh, between the train cars and exposed to the cold air. This felt familiar. I remember clinging onto my mother as we strolled through my hometown suburban mall years ago looking for Santa. That feeling of excitement, when I finally caught a glimpse of the man in a red suit sitting on his throne with frantic kids on his lap, came rushing back.

The doors opened and as I jumped into the first train car, a CTA worker dressed like an elf and holding a bucket of candy canes welcomed me. (I cannot confirm whether this was, in fact, Ella the elf, because when the CTA e-mailed me it said, “At this time, we don’t have anyone dressed specifically as Ella the Elf.”)

The train interior was like a holiday booze cruise. Dim Christmas lights in green, red, and white bordered the ceiling. A flutter of passengers, with their masks on, scooted into their seats, also now red and green. As the train moved, I held on tight to the striped candy-cane poles. 

One of the elves told me the selection process for the job was “competitive.” Some had tried for years to earn a spot on the holiday train. Sugaaa (who insisted I get the spelling of her name correct), one of Santa’s spokes-elf (I don’t know if this is an official term, but it should be), said she had worked the holiday train for nine years. Her favorite thing about the holiday train is seeing the faces of kids light up as they marvel at the decorations.

Dozens of CTA buttons were pinned to the front of Sugaaa’s costume like a prize collection. She offered to take an “Elf-ie” with me, and how could I resist? Another elf, who spoke anonymously out of fear of repercussions from Santa—the elf did not say this, but I could tell—told me they love watching first-time adult riders, like me, lose their shit over the holiday train.

One passenger had caught my attention on the platform. Fifty-seven-year-old Jeffrey Frasier yelled gleefully as the holiday train approached. He told me he was visiting from Florida, and as he and his friends were walking to the Art Institute, they saw the train pass by on the elevated tracks and decided to get onboard. It was something of a holiday miracle.

At each stop, I jumped out of the train car and then ran down the platform to another car, interviewing Santa’s elves on background. The question still piquing my curiosity was about the meal delivery to local charities. One of the elves told me that the CTA would normally deliver food donations directly into the hands of representatives from local organizations at certain stations. This year, however, CTA personnel dropped them off at the donation sites directly. The elf also didn’t know who the recipients were. 

An elf on a platform Credit: Samantha Bailey for Chicago Reader

Another elf told me that the holiday train was never dismantled. Every year after its final trip, the elf said, the train gets stored in a CTA facility in Skokie until the next season. The elf said it’s not a huge cost to maintain the holiday train because they reuse the decorations. The elf did not, it’s worth noting, use the word “minimal.”

As the end of my trip neared, I found the courage to go talk to Santa. He sat in his luxurious sleigh with five reindeer statues attached. He spoke to passengers with a microphone like a jolly party bus host. Like any self-respecting reporter in their 20s, I took out my cell phone and took a photo of me and Santa. Two CTA workers dressed in all black gear stood by Santa with their arms crossed, as if waiting for some unexpected threat. 

Before I could ask a question, Santa waved to me, thanked me for riding, and took off. I could hear Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” from the 1970 album Feliz Navidad, playing. Camera crews positioned themselves on the platform, and I moved out of the way as they got ready for their last shots. I watched as the holiday train twinkled into the distance.

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