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Patty Loveless takes a trek down Santa Claus lane

Every kid dreams of Santa Claus at Christmastime. But as a child in Pikeville, Ky., Patty Loveless actually got to see him.

"When I was 7, I was out in the back yard," remembers Patty. "I saw Santa Claus, but I was scared to death to tell my family because I thought they'd think I was making it up. Because kids do have imaginations, and imaginary friends.

"Now I know without a doubt that it was not my imagination," she declares. "I really did see Santa on that caboose, across the river on the railroad tracks, going around the mountain. It was the Santa Train."

Every year the Santa Train travels through the hills of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and several other southeastern states. From the train's caboose, Santa and his helpers toss presents to the excited children waiting along the tracks. Patty was reminded of her childhood Santa sighting when she volunteered to help Santa aboard the Santa Train in 1999.

"It was such a wonderful experience to be on the back of the caboose with Santa and see those kids' faces when the gifts were thrown off the train," reveals Patty. "Maybe some of those kids were thinking, 'Now I get to go and wrap this gift and give it to one of my brothers and sisters for Christmas.' I just got that feeling. It took me back.

"That's the way it was in my family," she continues. "What my mom and dad couldn't provide for us, my older brothers and sisters always tried to provide it for the young kids in the family. They didn't want to make Santa look bad! What a wonderful family I had. I still have some of those gifts, especially the dolls."

She pauses. "Sometimes you lose those toys down through the years, but the things you never lose are the memories of family. Those Christmases are ones I will cherish forever."

Being on the Santa Train inspired Patty to record her first-ever Christmas album, Bluegrass & White Snow. "We started recording this album in November 2001," she explains. "We recorded from winter into the next spring." Patty welcomed several special guests on the album, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood. She even wrote three of the songs with husband and producer Emory Gordy Jr.

One of them, "Christmas Day At My House," is a firsthand account of how Patty spent her childhood holidays with her family.

"Mother always had a special room in the house that was off-limits for about two weeks," remembers Patty with a grin. "It was a room with a coal-burning fireplace. She decided she was going to move the Christmas tree into that room, so it would be out of sight. You didn't go into that room until Christmas Eve day.

"On that day, Mother would be cooking and baking, getting ready for my brothers and my sisters who had families of their own. We would always try to open our gifts on Christmas Eve at midnight. There's something about Christmas Eve. It's a such a magical time. My mother was always like, 'It's not really Christmas until midnight!' "

Patty - the baby girl in the family - soaked up the family's togetherness like a sponge. "I recall many times laying across the bed, after my sisters had gotten there. The men would go and hang in one room, and Mama and my sisters would be in a bedroom talking. I would float off to sleep, listening to them talk. What they were talking about, I don't know. All I could think about was that everybody was there."

Today, Patty's siblings have families of their own. Since 1987 Patty has spent Christmas in Georgia with Emory's children from his previous marriage, and his grandchildren. This year they'll continue that tradition. "Christmas is a special time for Emory because it's his birthday," notes Patty. "Lately we've been driving back and forth to our new home in Georgia. We call it our 'vacation home' because we're so busy we don't get to see much of it. We spent our first Christmas in it last year."

Patty's new music will probably play a part in the Gordy family Christmas. "We love all the grandchildren, but there's one little granddaughter I'm really attached to," confesses Patty. "Emory and I got her this little doll for Christmas. We also sing her that song, 'Christmas Day At My House.' It's her favorite."

Though she'll spend Christmas in Georgia, Patty insisted on riding the Santa Train this year, just before Thanksgiving. "I did it for the 60th-year celebration," she says. "It was great."

As she once again helped Santa toss presents to the kids, Patty couldn't help but be reminded of her childhood, when she looked with wide eyes and saw the man in red coming 'round the mountain.

"It's amazing," she says with a sigh and a smile, "how these things come full circle."

-- Wendy Newcomer