Chicago’s CTA Christmas Train

Seven weeks after Lillian’s birth, Joe’s still on paid paternity leave from his amazing union job, so he’s been staying home with her while I go into work a few days a week. (I have the kind of job where, in theory, I can work remotely from anywhere with an internet connection, but in practice I need to show up once in a while to discuss new projects, meet with clients, make sure everyone doesn’t forget who I am, etc.)

So I commute downtown by train, and this past Friday, I was heading home after a long day at the office when I heard some kind of announcement in the subway. I didn’t quite make out what it said, but everyone around me seemed to get excited, and people were holding up cameraphones as they looked expectantly down the track.

I happened to have a digital camera in my pocket that day (have I mentioned that I’m a hopeless shutterbug?) and managed to whip it out in time to capture the CTA Holiday Train making its way up to the platform:

Very grainy image of the CTA Holiday Train approaching.

It’s just like a regular train, except every inch of it is covered with all kinds of holiday lights and decorations. I’d heard about it, and thought I’d like to actually see it or ride on it someday, so it was really cool to just stumble onto it like that on the course of a normal commute.

Here’s another picture of the train as it approached — it’s a little blurry, but you can see how the outside is covered in lights and painted with snowflakes and other holiday decorations:

Lights on the outside of the CTA Holiday Train.

And the inside is so ridiculously decked out — everything is bordered with tinsel and ribbons and strings of Christmas lights, the normally dull fluorescent lights overhead are tinted red and green, and the grab poles are even striped like candy canes:

Onboard the CTA Holiday Train.

For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with the Chicago CTA, here’s a nice, drab, boring shot showing what it usually looks like:

The Chicago CTA on a normal day, October 2011.

So yeah… the lights and decorations make for a pretty dramatic difference, and it was all so bright and whimsical that I spent most of the ride taking pictures. Here’s another closer shot showing the lights and tinsel decorating the ceiling:

Closeup of lights and tinsel on the CTA Holiday Train.

And instead of the usual ads for renter’s insurance and cell phone carriers, the panels along the ceiling were filled with seasons greetings and the lamest holiday-themed jokes you’ve ever heard. Some examples for your groaning pleasure:

What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?

Who sings “Love Me Tender” and makes holiday toys?
Santa’s little Elvis.

What did Frosty the snowman put on his iceburgers?
Chilly sauce.

What happened when the icicle fell on the polar bear’s head?
It knocked him out cold.

What did the bald snowman say when he got a new comb?
I will never part with this.

Doctor, doctor help! I’ve swallowed some holiday decorations!
Yes, I can see you have a case of tinselitis.

Anyway. Getting back to the train. When I first got on, the train was so crowded that it was several stops before some people stood up and I could see the seats. And it turned out that even these were upholstered in a festive holiday fabric:

Seat fabric on the CTA Holiday Train.

And then there were these CTA employees dressed up like elves, passing out buckets of train schedules and tiny candy canes.

CTA employee in elfish garb.

Weirdly, that guy in the hat isn’t an employee, just some random passenger who kept purposely sticking his face into my photos. I guess he was just excited — soon after, I overheard him on the phone telling someone, “I’m on the f***ing Christmas train!”

Speaking of passengers, it was interesting seeing how different people’s attitudes were toward the whole thing. On one end of the spectrum, you have this poor guy who just wants to get home, and would probably prefer to just be on a normal train so he could read his book in peace:

Passengers onboard the CTA Holiday Train.

And on the other end, you have groups of people who followed the train’s schedule and got on it on purpose, wearing holiday-themed outfits and laughing and taking pictures. I think you can even make out a few girls wearing reindeer antlers behind the reading guy in the photo above.

The best part of the whole train was this open air flatbed car with a Christmas scene:

Open air train car with holiday decorations.

After arriving at my stop, I was able to snap a few photos of it, and was surprised to see that there was even a real, live, human Santa Claus riding around on it. Poor guy must have been really cold.

Santa Claus on the CTA Holiday Train.

Anyway, that’s the Chicago Transit Authority’s take on holiday decor and festivity. If you’re in the area and want to try to catch a ride onboard the Holiday Train, it’ll apparently be running through the 22nd this year — a schedule is available here.

Have you ever ridden on a train like this? Or maybe just stumbled upon holiday decorations in an unexpected place? I’m not sure if there are other cities with commuter trains that dress up for Christmas like this, but I’d be curious to hear about it if you know of any.


  1. Now, that is so cool! I love it!!! That’s great that Joe is taking care of Lillian so you can go into work. How’s he doing with her? Lillian is a very blessed little girl to have such devoted parents. By the way, we had NO idea that you enjoy taking pictures! LOL Love ya!!

  2. Oh I wish I had decided to peek at your blog from school today, the kids would have loved your pix. I bet it would remind them all of The Polar Express, a movie we show each year before Christmas break. You have a real talent for catching the “spirit” in photos!

    And what a wonderful job Joe has! I know in theory, dads now get 12 weeks too, but down here that is usually unpaid, unless he’s raising the baby entirely on his own.

  3. Oh! The past few years, there HAS been a “trolley” (bus decked out to look like one) ride through downtown that makes holiday themed stops. The year I rode it, we “met” Scrooge at one stop, several of the Polar Express characters (we even got a bell like the one in the movie), and a weird Elvis impersonator! Not exactly normal public transport dressed up, but I think it IS an ECAT bus.

  4. What a treat that you were there just at the right time! And had your camera, too! Kudos to the CTA folks for sharing the Christmas spirit!

    Can’t wait to see you all – marvelous Mom and Dad, and precious baby!

  5. That Christmas trolley sounds fun! I think it’s great when cities go to the trouble of setting up something like that.

    Definitely looking forward to seeing everyone again and introducing Lillian to the rest of her family! :)

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