As Yolanda has written in previous posts, Christmas is a time for wishes and a time for memories: The Polar Express perfectly captures both. A young boy lies awake on Christmas Eve wishing for the sound of sleigh bells, but instead hears the sound of a train. He is whisked away to the North Pole on the Polar Express, along with other children in their pajamas and robes. Once there, he is given the first gift of Christmas by Santa Claus – one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. On the return journey, the boy loses the bell through a hole in his pocket, only for it to turn up again under the tree on Christmas Day. But the twist is that only the boy and his sister, Sarah, can hear the sound of the bell – his parents can’t as they don’t believe. The coda is almost unbearably sad and brings me to tears every time I read it to my children:
“At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
Van Allsburg’s rich and somewhat somber paintings fill each page, with just a narrow border of text, and capture the thrill of the journey and the first gift. The features and expressions of the children showing their excitement and, then, the crushing loss of the bell are so realistic that you feel you’re on the train with them. And though there are no specific clues as to the era the book is set in, it has the innocence and nostalgia of It’s A Wonderful Life.
That magical spirit of Christmas personified in the ringing of a sleigh bell is so hard to believe in and hold onto as we get older and the holiday becomes a frantic whirl of gift buying and giving, social engagements and cooking frenzies. But taking some time out in the days after Christmas, to read The Polar Express with your kids (or by yourself!) will help rejuvenate you and rekindle the enchantment of the season.