The Chicago Transit Authority has once again gotten into the spirit of the holiday season with its Holiday Train, which began its annual run on Nov. 23.
The train is decked out with garland, bows, thousands of lights and hand poles wrapped to look like candy canes, in addition to an open car in the middle that carries Santa Claus, his reindeer and several decorated Christmas trees.
"It is a unique thing to Chicago," said CTA Media Spokesperson Catherine Hosinski. "No other city has an in-service train like this. Over the 21 years, this has become a tradition among Chicagoans and their families. They make this part of their holiday season traditions, to go out and see it and ride it and say 'hi' to Santa."
The Holiday Train will run on all of the CTA's rail lines over the next month, typically between the hours of 1 and 8 p.m. It will run on the Green Line on Nov. 28 and on the Blue Line from Dec. 6-8, including photo opportunities with Santa Claus on Dec. 8. More specific timetables for each day of service will be available on the CTA's website earlier that week, according to Hosinski.
The CTA's train tracker will also indicate the estimated arrival of the Holiday Train with a candy cane icon.
The tradition of the Holiday Train began in 1992 with an out-of-service O'Hare Blue Line train delivering food baskets to various charities, and has grown from those humble beginnings every year since.
"When it started, all it was, was a 'Season's Greetings From The CTA' sign that was placed in the front of an out-of-service train that was delivering food baskets," Hosinski said. "So it's come from that, to what you see today: Thousands of lights, music, ad inserts that are all about the North Pole, and little elf jokes and stuff like that. So it's really expanded over the years in terms of its festiveness."
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Today's Holiday Train continues the tradition of food donations, with the CTA planning to donate 300 food baskets this year to various charitable organizations around the city.
"CTA employees donate the money that's used to buy the food for the food baskets, so this is an initiative that's driven by CTA personnel only," Hosinski said. "And each food basket contains all the trimmings for a complete holiday meal."
If parents want to bring their kids to have their photo taken with Santa, such opportunities will only be available at specific terminals on specific days. Photo times will be included in the online timetables listed for each line.
"The train usually holds for about 45 minutes to allow for photos," Hosinski said. "But we do have to keep in mind that this is an in-service train that does have to adhere to a schedule. We try to hand out as many photos as we can within that 45 minute timeframe."
While the Holiday Train is certainly popular among children and families, Hosinski said it has a way of bringing out the child in all of us.
"Most often you'd think, 'Oh, it's a fun thing for the kids,' but you actually get a bigger reaction out of the bigger kids, the adults, you know, people coming home from work," she said. "It really is something to see."