The Polar Express is more than a book for some people. It’s a holiday family tradition that has become an eagerly-anticipated December event!
The following guest post is written by Karen Blake in 2013, but it’s one of my most popular holiday posts.
Karen is a teacher, mom of three, and aunt of many. She’s a lover of traditions and is quite honestly one of the most creative and crafty friends I have.
Traditions are my favorite.
And Christmas traditions are the absolute BEST!
My husband, Doug, and I have a number of fun traditions with our three little ones, Keegan (4 years old), Brigid (2) and Declan (10 months), but one of my all-time favorite traditions was started way before my little family of five was created.
That tradition is Polar Express Night, or as my nieces and nephews like to call it, P.E.N. And this holiday tradition was put into place way before the movie came to the big screen!
Polar Express Night–A Holiday Family Tradition:
Here’s a little bit of history on how this night came about. I’ll try my best to make it brief, but I want you to see how this fun family event has evolved.
I went to college to become a teacher. It was in my children’s literature class, that I discovered Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Polar Express.
I fell in love with this story and it was on that day that I knew I would do something special with my students once I graduated and had my very own classroom.
Well, that dream came true. Every single year, I would read The Polar Express to my students.
The students would bring blankets and sit on the floor, and I would hand out hot chocolate and cookies and then read the story. At the end, I would give each child a bell. I called each student separately and as I put the bell around their neck, I would say to them:
I always teared up when I did this, too, and I was sure my fifth graders thought I was a nut!
This classroom tradition was special to me, but it wasn’t until former students would come back to school to visit during the holidays, wearing their bells and telling me how they will never forget our Polar Express Day, that made me realize what that message really meant to them.
So, because of this, I started a Polar Express Night with my nieces and nephews (who were, and still are, the world to me!).
How Polar Express Night (P.E.N.) began:
When I started P.E.N, there were seven nieces and nephews. This was 12 years ago. Since then, we have gained two more nephews, one more niece and my three babies. I was single and living on my own in my small townhouse when I invited my 7 nieces and nephews (ranging from age 2-9) over for a special story.
They were so cute and little and so very excited. I did exactly what I had been doing in my classroom.
We read the story, drank hot cocoa (with lots and lots of marshmallows and whipped cream, of course) and cookies and they each received their bell. Those were the simple days.
Oh my, how P.E.N has grown!
My 2nd year, I decided to have them all spend the night. It was just the best! We all got in our jammies, ate pizza and went on with the tradition we started the year before. I couldn’t give them bells again, so they all received a special holiday mug from me.
The whole night and the gifts just got bigger and bigger as the years went on! This is why still today, I hold P.E.N– and even the niece and nephew that are in college can’t wait for this night.
Each P.E.N is unique and special.
I wanted each P.E.N. to be unique and special, so in addition to the book, we would have an activity.
But of course, each year had to be different.
Here are some of our yearly P.E.N activities:
- played charades and board games one year;
- watched Christmas movies (Rudolph, Frosty, etc.) another year.
The year that new traditions started.
The year that The Polar Express movie came out on DVD and that really helped with “activity time”! That’s when new traditions started.
We now start with the book and then we put the movie on and pop the popcorn (everyone has a job: marshmallow person, chocolate shaver, pour the packet of hot cocoa helper, whipped cream squirter, stirrer, server, etc).
We don’t drink our hot chocolate or eat our cookies until that scene of the movie comes on! Honestly, we start the movie, hit pause when that specific train scene comes on and then we all grab our cup of yumminess and handful of cookies and we sing along to the Hot Chocolate song.
And yes, the kids have aged and they are no longer ages 2-7, they are now 12 years older and still singing and having fun.
So, for the past several years, the Polar Express Night plan has been:
Some of the Polar Express activities have been:
- gingerbread houses,
- family trivia,
- our own version of Pictionary,
- Left Right Center (we are a competitive family, so of course we played with money),
- just to name a few!
P.E.N has a new home and continues to grow.
In 2007, I was newly married and in my new house. I’m not sure my husband knew what he was getting into! I was now out of my small townhouse and in my new home, which meant more room!
Thank goodness, because everyone was bigger and this gave P.E.N a new level of excitement. Aunt Karen had more space to run around and we didn’t have to sleep on top of each other.
Each year that we gained a new niece or nephew, it too brought a new level of excitement. The older kids were excited to share this special night with their new cousin. Most of the kids didn’t start the sleepover part until they were 4 or older, but we never let them think they were missing out on anything. They stayed until the movie ended and we just pretended it was bedtime after that!
And when Karen’s babies arrived?
I couldn’t wait to have my own children and have them be a part P.E.N too, but when my first child was due two months before Christmas I just didn’t know what I was going to do. Do I have Polar Express Night with a two-month-old?
Silly question, Karen, of course you do! What would Christmas be without it?
So, when you are the aunt of 9 nieces of nephews and have your newborn little son, you have Polar Express Night and you have a blast. And when you have 10 nieces and nephews, a 2 year old and a 4 month old SUPER colicky baby girl, you still have Polar Express Night, because again, what would Christmas be without it?
And then when you have a 3 year old, 17 month old, and you’re 8 months pregnant, you STILL have P.E.N, because what would Christmas be without it?!
No regrets. None. I would be sad if I didn’t have those memories. Who needs sleep anyway??!!
Polar Express Night is everyone’s favorite.
So, now we have a total of 13 beautiful people that look forward to this tradition. My youngest, Declan, will experience his first this year, and it will be memorable for all. Every niece and nephew finds the excitement in introducing this tradition to their little cousin.
My toughest part of the night? What creative activity and gift do I come up with? I put that pressure on myself, because I want to make it perfect for them, but I know that isn’t the important part.
Some of the gifts I’ve given are:
- the holiday t-shirt,
- the mug,
- a snowman making kit,
- a grab bag,
- Polar Express pillow cases,
- gift cards to their favorite places,
- and many more.
My favorite? The “I survived Aunt Karen’s Polar Express Night” t-shirt!
The best part of that was when we all happened to go to church at the same time the day after P.E.N and all of the kids were in their t-shirt! This sure did make me smile, and I laughed out loud when someone tapped my mother on the shoulder and said, “Who is Aunt Karen and what is Polar Express Night?”
Memories to last a lifetime.
The most important thing is that a group of boys and girls that love being together are making memories that will last a long time. Maybe they will even continue this tradition years and years down the road when I’m just “too tired”!!! That won’t be anytime soon, though–I can guarantee that!
I love to hear the whole gang discuss the memorable moments.
They like to remember the laughs that they have had, the arguments on who would be the “whipped cream squirter” for the night, what team won family trivia, who had the best gingerbread house, and we always find ourselves trying to list the gifts that they received each year. I will admit, some have been quite memorable!
What P.E.N means to me.
I’m looking forward to my 2013 P.E.N. I’m sure that some of the teenage nieces and nephews may think they are getting a bit old for it, but I believe that deep down, they just don’t want to miss out and truly do love it as much as I do. Hopefully when they all wake up the next day, and I feed them their stacks of pancakes and piles of bacon (I truly feel like a diner cook), they will think, “I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this.”
I recently emailed my college niece and asked her what this night means to her. Here is her response:
“Polar express night means a lot to me. It’s not just time to spend with cousins, because we do that plenty during the year, but it really makes us appreciate each other. We all have roles to play and we know everyone’s favorite part of both the movie and the night in general. For some, it’s the cookies, for others it trivia, and for some it’s hot chocolate.
One thing that has been pretty special is welcoming new cousins to it. When we started, Ryan didn’t sleep over, or James and last year James did for the first time. Not to mention your new babies, that adds a great addition, not just because they are cute, but because we become more responsible with them around.
We have more tolerance for each other -which is a little bit bad to say- but through those arguments/tiffs that occur every once and while we are given an opportunity to apologize and grow.
Christmas day is wonderful, as is Christmas Eve, however Polar Express Night offers something extra that those other days don’t. It is a night to spend with the people that will be your friends for life, the people you can tell anything to, laugh with and cry with. They have felt the same sadness as you, and the same pride, that comes with being a member of the Collins family. I love Polar Express night and couldn’t imagine Christmas without it.”
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! And remember, believe in the magic of Christmas!
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Karen, for sharing this fun and meaningful holiday tradition with us!
Karen spent 13 years in the classroom, teaching 5th grade and doing what she could to make her students’ learning meaningful and magical. Now, she’s at home raising her 4, 2, and 1 year old, tutoring students, and working for Rendi, where she captures families’ magical memories for sharing and display. Right now, she’s most likely busy planning this year’s Polar Express party for her many little bell-ringers.
Want a few more holiday-inspired gift ideas or activities? Check out:
- Best Gifts for Kids and Families 2014
- Best Gifts for Kids and Families 2013
- Best Gifts for Kids and Families 2012
- Best Gifts for Kids and Families 2011
- Holiday Fun Fact and JOKES Lunchbox Notes (with Hannukah!)
- Holiday Time Fun Fact Lunchbox Notes
- Little Holiday Notes and Jokes
- Holiday Notes for Families
- The Polar Express tradition
- Scratch-off Cards
- K-Cup Advent Tree
- New Year’s Family Interview
- Happy Holidays Backyard Birds
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Beautiful post & excellent tradition. What a blessing you are to your family! Thanks for sharing.
Jessica @ Play Trains!
What a beautiful tradition! I especially love what your niece had to say about it. So cool to know how much it’s meant to them!
This is a beautiful tradition! We are just starting with our little family, we have a 2 year old and a 7 month old, so we are looking for great fun traditions to start doing. I have been thinking about doing something similar with How The Grinch Stole Christmas. My 2 year old loves the movie. Thanks for sharing.
Deven! THANK YOU–I love this tradition too, which is why I am so thrilled that Karen guest posted for me! Please–if you start one for ‘The Grinch’ do share!!
This is such an awesome idea, when you welcome new additions to the polar express night, do you give them a bell on their first year?