Christmas was my favorite time of year as a kid. My brothers and I would count down the last days of school until the break, and then we’d be home counting the days till Christmas. I’m sure we drove our parents crazy speculating about our gifts and wishing Christmas would get here already. Christmas Eve was full of excitement and anticipation. I don’t know how we ever got to sleep, but somehow we did. We’d wake up at 6 a.m. on December 25, rush into the living room, and see all the presents under the tree. Then we’d spend the rest of the day playing with our new toys and video games. It was always a good day, and I’m very grateful for those memories. I don’t have most of those gifts anymore, but I will always cherish those experiences.
After Kristen died, I made the decision to stop buying dozens of Christmas gifts for my children. Part of it was practical. I just didn’t have the money to spend on so many presents. We also have too many toys laying around the house anyway and not enough room to store them. I noticed that after every birthday or Christmas, Elizabeth and Ian didn’t play with their new toys for very long – maybe a few days or a few weeks at most, and that was it. Did they really need the latest gadgets with all the lights and sounds and educational stimulation? Or the newest craze that every other kid wanted (when they already have plenty of dolls, cars, and blocks to play with?)
I decided instead to start making memories with my children at Christmas time. Rather than buying them presents that they probably won’t remember when they’re all grown up, I wanted to give them something that they would never forget. I wanted to pay for an experience that they would always cherish.
Last year, we went to see Frozen on Ice, and we had a blast!
This year, we went on the Polar Express train ride, and it was awesome!
I bought those train tickets back in July. Paid for a first-class table with 4 seats. This was before Lauren and I were “officially” a couple, so I must have been feeling pretty optimistic about taking her with us 5 months later in December.
I didn’t tell Elizabeth and Ian where we were going (I guess I could have told Ian. He is only 2 after all and wouldn’t have spoiled the surprise for Elizabeth, but I decided to play it safe.) I picked them up on Friday, took them home, and changed them into their pajamas. Then the four of us drove off.
Elizabeth kept trying to guess where we were going. She got really close when she asked, “Is it the North Pole?” Lauren and I just smiled at each other.
Our train left at 7 p.m., but we were supposed to be there by 6. The sun had gone down, and it was so cold that night. Bitterly cold. The first time it had felt like Christmas all year.
We tried to stay indoors for as long as we could. The kids had their picture taken with Santa, they colored pictures and made crafts, and Elizabeth wrote a letter to Santa and placed it in his special mailbox. We went looking for the face-painting station, but our train was about to arrive, so we decided to come back for that later.
We went outside to board the train. Lauren shielded Ian from the chilling wind while I clutched Elizabeth and put her hands inside my coat. There were so many parents and grandparents huddled around their children, all of us dressed inappropriately for the cold in our pjs. But the Polar Express arrived, and we couldn’t have been happier.
Once we were on the train, we soon forget about the weather and began singing along with the chefs and enjoying our hot chocolate, served in fancy, ceramic Christmas mugs, of course. We read the Polar Express, took lots of pictures, and enjoyed many smiles and laughs.
The train stopped at the North Pole, so we got off for a bit to see Santa and his elves. We sang some more, wished Santa a Merry Christmas, and were soon back on the train. Santa came on board, too, and gave each of us a bell. We were sitting at the back, so we were the last table Santa visited. Elizabeth kept asking if Santa would know her name (Santa’s supposed to know everyone’s name, after all), and we told her she would just have to wait and see.
Finally Santa made his way to our table. As he reached out to hand Elizabeth her bell, he smiled warmly and said, “Merry Christmas, Elizabeth! Thank you for writing to me about that American Girl doll you want this year.”
Elizabeth beamed and shook with excitement. She was so happy that Santa knew who she was and exactly what she wanted for Christmas. It was a dream come true.
We got back to the station, the kids had their faces painted, and we went home. Elizabeth and Ian fell asleep in the car, and Lauren and I reflected on how much fun we’d had as a family.
I hope my children always remember that freezing cold night, when they rode the train to the North Pole, drank hot chocolate, sang Christmas songs, met Santa Claus, and fell asleep on the ride home. I hope they remember these moments when we were all together, sharing an adventure and a laugh, making sweet memories at Christmas.