You can't have Christmas without trains, says Canadian Pacific employee Jeff Johnson. For the rest of CP and hundreds of local families, the Christmas season takes off when the Holiday Train leaves the tracks.
"There's definitely a connection between Christmas and trains," Johnson said. "Trains and Christmas go together. You hear about the Polar Express - we have the real thing."
The Holiday Train is decked out in multi-colored Christmas lights on the outside. On the inside, the windows are decorated with cut-out snowflakes and a gallery of colored pictures from the children. Snowmen, Santas and reindeer hang from the walls, covered in glittering banners and wreaths. The ceiling is dotted with shiny red, blue and silver ornaments. Mixed with the holiday spirit of the crew, the train overflows with good cheer.
"It really gets you in the holiday spirit," Johnson said. "For many families, this is how they start their holiday season. We've even had a few Christmas carols break out on the train this year."
Parents wearing reindeer horns took pictures of their children looking out at the frozen Mississippi River while other kids sipped hot chocolates. Only a handful of families lucky enough to be friends or relatives of a CP employee get an inside look at the train, which travels from town to town each holiday season.
"I've really been looking forward to this," said passenger Kristin Paige, who rode with her 4-year-old daughter Emma. "This is something not everybody gets to do, riding the Holiday Train."
At the front of the train, CP employee Christine Brown sang "Winter Wonderland" to herself as she poured more hot chocolate into holiday cups, and CP spokesman Mike LoVecchio prepared for Santa Claus' arrival.
"The reaction is unbelievable," LoVecchio said, while children turned in their seats, cheering and clapping as Santa entered. "This is our way to reconnect with the places we operate in. We're America's only rolling food fundraiser."
Two Holiday Trains collect donations at each of the 140 stops between Montreal and Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to contribute to each community's food pantry over the course of three weeks. After 12 years, CP has raised $4.8 million and 3.2 million pounds of food.
"The reward in part is knowing you're helping your neighbors," LoVecchio said. "For smaller communities, this serves as a big fundraiser during the holiday season. And we have some of our biggest shows in Minnesota."
Soon after Santa handed out candy canes and the children listed off their Christmas wishes, the train slowed to a stop. And though the fun had only begun, some passengers didn't want to get off the train.
"I want to ride on it again," said 5-year-old Danica Brenengen.
But as she stepped out into the crowd, hand-in-hand with her parents, the neighboring train car door opened up, and the band began to play for hundreds of bundled up families, dancing to Christmas tunes to keep warm.