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Place Setting: In Appalachia, Santa Rides A Coal Train

The eccentricities of place are a prominent feature in my thoughts and images. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan outlines in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, a place first acquires visibility, or is created, when it is displaced from the undifferentiated space of wilderness. With time and continual expansion the limits of settlement become less dramatized by a discernible boundary of wilderness and it is at this point that “the integrity of place must be ritually maintained”. [1] This quote is integral to understanding my practice.  It is this ritual maintenance of both place and space that fascinates my mind. I’m particularly attracted to subtle quirks, mundane oddities of our cultural and built environments. I like the curious arrangements that we tend to both create and accept without question, or notice.

The Santa Train on its 50th anniversary. Photograph © Patsy Phillips.

The Santa Train on its 50th anniversary. Photograph © Patsy Phillips.

For the past 70 years, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Santa Claus has traveled through the mountains of Central Appalachia not on a sleigh, but on a train.  Billed as the world’s largest Santa Parade, the Santa Special, more commonly known as The Santa Train, departs from Pikeville, Kentucky, travels 110 miles across the hills of southwestern Virginia, and on to Kingsport, Tennessee. As the train moves along, Santa makes official stops in 14 small communities and distributes over 15 tons of toys, candy, and homemade gifts donated by local craftspeople.

My cousins and I impatiently waiting for the Santa Train in 1988. Photograph © Patsy Phillips.

My cousins and I impatiently waiting for the Santa Train in 1988. Photograph © Patsy Phillips.

Why does Santa Claus visit on the Saturday before Thanksgiving? Why does he throw presents from the back of a coal train as he hurries by small rural towns and communities laughing all jolly like as small children chase him and grown adults fight over stuffed animals and wrapping paper? I have no idea. There is no elaboration on the myth, there are no narrative details to flush out the story as far as I am aware. I do know that it is undeniably one of the most loved traditions of the area,  bringing together communities and families across multiple generations, even if it is to fight over wrapping paper.

There are two common stories behind the practical origin of the Santa Train.  One holds that the practice was started to provide gifts to the impoverished children of hardworking, but poverty stricken people in a desolate rural area. To this day, you will often hear reporters emphatically stating that these are the only presents the poor children of Appalachia will receive this year. The other explanation for the Santa Train has that this tradition was started by a group of local merchants in Kingsport, Tennessee as a public relations event in order to ostensibly thank the customers of southwest Virginia. They hoped to encourage people to follow the train to Kingsport where they could then enjoy the local shops in an official start to the holiday shopping season.  Which story is true? Probably both, or maybe neither. 

Whatever the true backstory may be, the Santa Train is one of my favorite Appalachian oddities. And despite the multiple socio-economic considerations and questions this tradition raises for my mind, it is a maintenance ritual I continue to enjoy. I do wish they still tossed the presents along the tracks while the train was moving. The very real threat of being hit by a high-speed flying Moon Pie while you raced to pick up more desirable candy and Archie comic books from the side of the tracks made it so much more enjoyable.

[1] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, p. 166

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