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How the CTA holiday train tradition began

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It was inspired by a simple holiday greeting

A holiday train with lights and a cartoon wrap travels through a downtown station.
The CTA holiday train
Photos courtesy of the CTA

Seasons Greetings from the CTA! That’s nearly all it took to kickstart this holiday tradition in 1992.

At the time, an out-of-service Blue Line train was being used to deliver food donations to charities across the city. The conductor fashioned a simple sign on the front with the cheerful, holiday message. As the train passed stations, rather than getting annoyed that they wouldn’t be able to board, folks were rather pleased with the “holiday train.”

Over the years, it has become a bit more of a spectacle. The trains are decked out in multi-colored lights, red fuzzy bows, and colorful garlands. Red and green translucent filters replace the usual fluorescent lighting and poles are wrapped like candy canes. The main event is, of course, Santa. An open-air flatcar carries his sleigh, reindeer, and holiday trees.

Whether you’re a kid or not, there is a little magic in seeing the festive train roll up to your regular stop. It’s become so popular that the transit agency added a six-car Elves’ Workshop train that directly follows Santa and holiday buses wrapped like reindeer complete with a glowing red nose.

Keeping in line with how the tradition started, the transit agency employees buy groceries and assemble donations for community organizations—every year they donate about 500 food baskets.

Need some holiday cheer? There are only are about 19 days total to catch the joyful trains or buses which run from late November to early December. We’ve also rounded up a few other places to see twinkly holiday lights across the city.