Last Sunday I saw something I have never seen in 23 years of living in Ashcroft: an honest-to-goodness traffic jam. Cars heading north on Brink Street were backed up for at least five blocks, and were at an almost complete standstill. As one car moved forward, inching toward the bridge, another one immediately took its place.
It was just after 9 p.m.; an unusual time, to say the least, for a traffic jam in Ashcroft. Then again, that’s what happens when 1,200 people descend on downtown, which is what occurred on Sunday, Dec. 15, when the CP Holiday Train rolled into town shortly before 8:30 p.m.
I remember the first Holiday Train, in 1999. My son was two years old, and we went down to see what the event was all about. In those early days there was no special car with a stage; the performers clambered down from the train and stood among the crowd, performing live with an intimacy that was amazing. I haven’t missed a Holiday Train since.
On at least two occasions that I can recall, the train arrived during daylight hours, on a school day. While this had the advantage of ensuring that kids could be at the event without staying up late, the daylight viewing meant that the full effect of the tens of thousands of lights on the train were somewhat lost. Indeed, more than once my son and I drove out along Evans Road well in advance of the Holiday Train’s arrival, to watch as it approached, the bright lights of the train a stark contrast to the dark winter landscape.
Last year I was able to ride the Holiday Train from Savona to Ashcroft, and it was an amazing experience. Even though it was at night, the lights from the train illuminated the snowy landscape. On the other side of the river I could see the headlights of vehicles on the Trans-Canada, and I wondered what they made of the colourful sight.
As we swept along the Thompson towards Ashcroft I was glued to the window, watching the familiar landscape from an unfamiliar vantage point. People were lined up along the tracks from the Highway 97C crossing and on into town, everyone who wasn’t taking pictures waving enthusiastically.
I gave my tickets to someone else this year, so was standing track-side as the train pulled into view, sweeping gracefully around the final bend. There were cheers and claps, whoops and waves, from the assembled crowd as the train slowed to a stop, and the sense of anticipation was palpable.
I turned and looked at the hundreds of people watching, their faces glowing, their eyes alight. It was a perfect night for the Holiday Train, with the temperature just below freezing and no wind or snow. I’ve been to the Holiday Train when it has been -20° C., and when it has been just above freezing; enough to turn any ice or snow at the site into a cold slush. Doubtless the ideal weather contributed to the huge turnout, but it was more than just that.
The Holiday Train has become a major annual event in Ashcroft; something people mark on their calendars and look forward to, year in and year out (CP missed stopping here in one early year; an oversight they haven’t repeated). Addressing the crowd, Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart said that she now felt the Christmas season was really here, and I suspect a lot of the people there felt precisely the same way.
The CP Holiday Train has raised more than $16 million for food banks across North America, as well as 4.5 million pounds of food. It’s a noble endeavour, and greatly appreciated by the communities it stops in. But it is also a memory-maker for so many people; a beautiful, joyful event that unites our communities and brings simple pleasures with it. Beauty, joy, and happiness: who could ask for more at Christmas time?