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Thirty minutes before the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train was set to arrive in Winona on Sunday, parking spots were nearly all but gone for blocks surrounding the Amtrak Depot on Mark Street.

And in every direction, smiling bundled up children were pulling their parents toward the station.

That’s because every year the decorated Holiday Train rolls into town bringing Christmas cheer, a musical performance and a chance for the community to donate food or money, which are given to local food shelves across the country. This year the Holiday Train is celebrating 20 years of making its way across Canada and the U.S.

For Winona, those donations might have come in with record numbers.

“I think this is the most we’ve ever gotten,” said Bernie Merchlewitz, a 10 Days of Giving volunteer who was taking food donations along with her husband, Pete Merchlewitz, and their son Sean — a tradition they’ve done for about five years.

As she talked, the Holiday Train sounded its horn and a commotion of excitement pushed toward the tracks. Bernie and Pete turned to look at the donation trailer and estimated it was already two thirds full.

Bernie, along with Winona Volunteer Services director Sandra Burke, said they believe the heaping amounts of donations and attendance is due to the train coming on a Sunday rather than a weekday like it typically does

“I think the Sunday is definitely bringing people out,” Burke said with bright eyes and a cold red nose as she looked out over the crowd of hundreds.

The train — lit with hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights — came to a complete stop and music grew louder and louder. All across the crowd, children began popping up onto shoulders with enthusiasm or quickly sipping their hot chocolate before the performance began.

Then the big moment came. The central car with a specially designed music stage, let out a hiss as steam billowed out and the stage door dropped. Live music rang through the air as Willy Porter and The Trews kicked off their rocking performance with a high-energy Christmas song.

“Are you excited buddy?” Jackie Whitman said loudly to her son with a huge smile.

Three-year-old Ruckus Whitman replied by bouncing frantically up and down on his daddy’s shoulders.

As the crowd pushed forward toward the stage, Ruckus, his dad Rowdy and Jackie moved with the crowd and did a little jig as they walked. Ruckus lifted his snowgloved-covered hands in the air and bounced them side to side — his green hat with a ball on top following his motions.

Ruckus’s smile almost couldn’t have been bigger.

“I’m Willy Porter, give it up for this great band, The Trews,” the musician exclaimed into the microphone as the crowd erupted in cheers. “It’s an honor to be in Winona!”

Right next to the stage, kids were either sitting on shoulders, dancing on the ground with their parents, or hanging off the stage.

Only a few feet away from the musicians, a mom held her daughter in her arms so they faced each other. The mom pulled away just enough to look deep into her daughter’s eyes. Her smile grew from ear to ear. She pulled her daughter into a hug and swayed back and forth to the music.

For many in Winona, standing near the Holiday Train’s stage and listening to music is a part of their Christmas experience. For others, the experience is on the other side of the Amtrak stop, where the donations are brought in.

“You never know what position you could be in,” Bernie said as she looked at trailer packed to the brim with donations.

There was barely room for another few bags of food.

“It’s definitely needed in this community,” Bernie said.

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Named after the 80's hair band, Tesla is a feature journalist for the Winona Daily News, a fitness instructor, and a super cool mom.

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