Huddling under the heat lamps at the Brown Line stop at Damen, four rosy-cheeked little girls and three parents chat excitedly as they wait for the holiday train. A distant rumbling signals the arrival of yet another false alarm.
At 6:36pm, the train finally pulls in, just a few minutes behind schedule to the sound of cheers and screams. “Oh my gosh! It has so many lights on it,” one of the girls shrieks with delight.
Indeed, the CTA has gone all-out. The outside of the car is coated in Christmas bulbs, flickering and flashing ceaselessly. Between cars is a giant float, complete with sleigh, Christmas trees, a brick house (presumably Santa’s) and free candy. Inside, people mill around in wonderment, gazing up at the red and green fluorescent lights that bathe the car in an oddly eerie glow. The seats are reupholstered with red and green Santas, and the poles we normally grip with a single finger, like Captain Hook during rush hour, are wrapped in a candy-cane stripe. “Let It Snow” streams from the speakers. Wide-eyed toddlers clutch their parents, at once amazed and terrified. It’s like being in a Christmas-themed dream.
“Have you ever seen it this crowded?” a woman asks matter-of-factly to the baby in her arms. “Yeah, at rush hour,” she answers herself dryly.
The usual advertisements are gone, replaced with holiday-appropriate posters. “What kind of luggage does Santa bring down the chimney?” one asks (….a Soot Case!). Jokes just clever and stupid enough to help us crack a smile. And for usually bleary-eyed commuters, engrossed in their iPods, books and thoughts, wishing the lady next to them would get off her cellphone, this must be pretty close to what Santa envisioned.
On the way back, the train loses the holiday tunes in favor of a hip-hop jam that seems to go on forever. Moms break it down in the aisle, and a toddler shakes it with all his might until the arms of a guardian scoop him up. This is the one chance to break into dance on the El and not look crazy. (Emily Torem)