The Country Childrens Center’s annual Polar Express holiday celebration marked its 20th anniversary last Thursday, bringing seasonal magic — and a team of two sweet and beautiful reindeer — to delight more than 400 children from our area.
The annual event enchants youngsters from toddlers through fifth grade each year at the Country Childrens Center “Farm” site, set on four acres, complete with a pond and barn, on Route 35 in Katonah.
The event got its name from the beloved children’s book, The Polar Express, written by Chris Van Allsburg. In addition to the visiting reindeer, other highlights of the two-day event include CCC Executive Director Polly Peace donning her nightgown and granny glasses and reading the book to the children as they sit in a circle in the lavishly decorated science barn.
A working-scale model of the famous train, complete with handmade terrain created by Katonah resident Fran Resch, sits nearby, and several surprise visits from Santa, rides on a large toy train, and hot chocolate and holiday cookies complete the eagerly anticipated event.
“The Polar Express party started many years ago as just me reading the book to the children, with everyone coming to our Katonah center in our pajamas and nightgowns on that day,” said Ms. Peace.
From there, the event grew and expanded over the years to the full-blown two-day celebration that took place last week.
“Each year we would add something new, be it a visit from Santa, hot chocolate and cookies, or Frosty the Snowman,” Ms. Peace said. “In 1997 we hired Katonah resident Fran Resch as a part-time handyman at the center. As we got to know each other I discovered that Fran was a model train enthusiast. This sparked the idea to build a train and terrain that would depict the Polar Express and have it there for the children on the days I read the story. We put the train in the barn and decided it would be fun to turn the whole building into the North Pole for the event.”
From there, the event really took off, with musical singing bears, staff members costumed as Frosty, a reindeer, and other characters, and finally, 10 years ago, the addition of the beautiful live reindeer.
Flying down from Buffalo
A source of joy and fascination for CCC children, the reindeer are the “stars” of the Polar Express party show.
Owned by Mike Jablonski and Curt Maras of upstate Hamburg, the two lovely does, Angel and Figely, make a seven-hour trailer journey each year to meet the children.
About the height of a Shetland pony but more delicately built, Angel and Figely, unlike most female deer, have full sets of antlers and are immaculately groomed and well-mannered.
“Reindeer are friendly, smart and curious,” said Mr. Jablonski, who has a herd of about 50 at his Antler Ridge Farm outside Buffalo. “This time of the year is very busy for us,” he said. “We are constantly on the move for different events, starting right before Thanksgiving and going to mid-January. We enjoy telling people about them and how they live on our upstate farm.”
Mr. Jablonski said the Country Childrens Center is one of his favorite places to visit. “Everyone here is very friendly, the children are well-behaved and the event is perfectly organized,” he said. “It’s a treat to come here each year.”
A labor of love
Polar Express preparations take a lot of time and effort, but the staff says it is well worth it.
Decorations in the barn are lavish, featuring the Polar Express model train and terrain, a large decorated tree, wreaths, swags, stuffed figures, painted wall murals of scenes from The Polar Express, and just about any other item of holiday décor that can be imagined.
“Getting the barn ready is a big undertaking,” said long-time Farm site director Noreen Cotter. “We all pull together, and this year our top workers were me, our art teacher Jane Eiserman, Ramon Mendez, and Ric Peace, Polly’s husband.”
The group spent several hours taking all of the Polar Express gear out of storage and assembling it.
“Many of the items are handmade by the children and have a sentimental value to us as we unwrap them each year,” Ms. Cotter said. “It’s very much like pulling out your own holiday decorations at home. There are a lot of memories and very little is store-bought.
“It’s a real trip down memory lane for us and the children, who recognize things they have made over the years.”
Ms. Cotter said scheduling of CCC’s 400 children has become an art over the years, and every child get to experience every part of the Polar Express event. “We now have five sites — two in Katonah, one in Bedford Hills, and two in Yorktown — and all of our children, from toddlers on up, get to come here to Katonah in groups.”
Ms. Cotter said one of her favorite parts of the event is seeing Ms. Peace read The Polar Express to the children. “Seeing Polly in her granny gown and the children in their pajamas listening to the story so hard you can hear a pin drop, and then the final ringing of the little silver bell at the end, is still very emotional for me after all these years,” she said.
“One little boy came up to me afterward and said, ‘Miss Noreen, this is like a fairy tale come true.’ And he was right.”
CCC parent Ana Cabreira and her 3-year-old daughter, Elisa, agreed. “We just love it,” Ms. Cabreira said. “We moved here two years ago from Chile, where there is nothing like this. Christmas is so much better here because it’s cold and beautiful and that really helps us get into the spirit.”
Touching many hearts
Ms. Peace said the Polar Express party “is an attempt on our part to celebrate the beauty and innocence of the children by bringing this wonderful story to life all around them.
“I have been reading it to hundreds of children for many, many years. Even though I pretty much have the book memorized, I still choke up every time I read that last page. The Polar Express is a symbol of believing in things we never really see, like love and trust and fantastical places. I am glad we can bring this little pocket of magic and joy to the CCC children at this time of the year. I am renewed yearly by the beauty of their innocence and the way they so generously show their love of all of our efforts.”