It seems like every time somebody – usually somebody trying to sell more of something – comes up with a brainwave on how to “modernize” Christmas, there’s a backlash. And I’m not just talking about the Bill O’Reillys of this world, who get their knickers in a twist over people who prefer to substitute the inclusive term “holidays” for the exclusive “Christmas” when conveying their season’s greetings. Nor am I talking about hard-line Christians who insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that nobody celebrated the Winter Solstice by bringing evergreens into their homes until Jesus came along.
Fundamentally, I don’t think that it’s a religious issue at all. A large part of the appeal of Christmas and the other holidays that occur this time of year is nostalgia: an atavistic urge to return to a time in one’s childhood, real or imagined, when one felt safe and cherished. It’s a kind of comfort food for the psyche.
Plastic Yule trees may uphold the noble principle of sustainability, but they just don’t smell right. Shopping malls are obliged to play more contemporary, secular holiday songs over their PA systems, but they don’t make us feel grounded in the way the ancient carols do. This holds true even for a lot of people who don’t believe in the particular deity who inhabits those carols. Whatever we choose to call it, we want “Christmastime” not to change too much.
So it’s nearly always an uncontroversial pleasure when somebody gets a brainwave for a way to evoke times long past when we get into the winter holiday season. The Catskill Mountain Railroad, whose stock in trade is nostalgia, came up with a great idea some years back when it started bringing its historic railway cars and engines into Kingston in December and early January. Those Holiday Train Rides are back, and you can join one any one of the next few weekends – with the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day itself and New Year’s Eve. There will be additional trips on Boxing Day and the day after New Year’s.
These one-hour excursions depart from Westbrook Lane for a three-mile round-trip that heads west across Fair Street to Washington Avenue, and thence to the old C9 Bridge and back again. Since these are vintage trains that used to serve the Catskill mountain houses way back in the day, most of the seating is open-air, so you would be wise to dress appropriately for the weather. There is a refurbished caboose, which is an enclosed space with a woodstove; but seating therein is limited, and so should probably be ceded to babies, the elderly and the infirm. Think of this bit of time-travel as an adventure into the days before central heating, and come prepared.
It should be noted that, although Catskill Mountain Railroad trains do make forays into Kingston at some other times of the year, this is the only time when Santa has a seat booked on every single excursion (except for New Year’s weekend, when presumably he’ll be someplace tropical to recuperate). So your kids will have a captive audience for their wish lists, and they won’t even have to sit on his lap – and you won’t have to listen to the mind-numbing blare of mall holiday music.
The Catskill Mountain Railroad’s Holiday Train Rides leave Westbrook Lane at Kingston Plaza at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, December 17 and 18 and January 1, as well as on Mondays, December 26 and January 2. The fare is $6 for adults, $4 for children aged 2 to 11. Tickets are available for sale at the depot beginning 30 minutes before the first train of the day. Plenty of free parking is available at the Plaza. The trains are handicapped-accessible but have no onboard rest rooms, so plan ahead. For more information, visit www.catskillmtrailroad.com.