By Paula Schleis

For a twist on how you normally celebrate Christmas, step inside a classic children’s book and become an elf for a day — a volunteer opportunity you can do on a whim any night between now and Dec. 21.

This is the 24th year for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Polar Express, which will use more than 500 volunteers to entertain and serve 42,000 riders before its season ends.

The event was sold out long ago, but if you can serve hot chocolate, read stories or simply stand outside at the train depot and build anticipation as the youngsters await Santa’s arrival, there’s a green costume with your name on it.

In that latter role, you don’t even need to sign up in advance.

Just show up before 7 p.m. any day of the week between now and Dec. 21 at the Peninsula train depot, 1630 W. Mill St., next to the Winking Lizard restaurant.

That depot is now serving as the North Pole, and the on-site Santa’s Workshop has plenty of one-size-fits-all elf costumes that you can borrow. Or you can come dressed in your own elf clothes.

At 7 p.m., the train will arrive with youngsters aboard pressing their noses to the chilled windows looking for Santa.

“The elves outside help build excitement until the big man arrives, dancing or jumping up and down or making faces at the kids,” said program coordinator Danny Napolitano.

The more the merrier, Napolitano said, because the book talks about the hundreds of excited elves greeting the train at the North Pole.

“We like to have at least 50, but last Friday we went through 200 elf costumes,” Napolitano said.

A second train arrives shortly after the first. One comes from Akron, the other from the Rockside Station in Independence.

Volunteers can expect to spend about 90 minutes on the job. Some entire families turn out, after which many make a night of it and head off to a late dinner.

For a more structured volunteer experience, you can also sign up to be an “elf assistant” aboard the train, a five-hour commitment (from 5 to 10 p.m.) that can include leading singalongs, helping with props and passing out cookies.

Official elf orientation is over, but Napolitano said he’ll do “over-the-phone” coaching for latecomers who want to help out.

Start by visiting https://www.cvsr.com, clicking on the “Volunteer” tab and then the “Polar Express” link to fill out a volunteer agreement and read an overview of what to expect.

On-board elf assistants must be 18 years or older, or as young as 14 years as long as they are with an adult.

James Verde, 71, a retired school teacher from Akron, said he took up his daughter’s challenge after she rode the Polar Express last year with her own kids and told her pops to volunteer.

He plays the role of conductor in his car, “and I just love it,” he said. “How they transform Peninsula into the North Pole is outstanding. … The public can never imagine what all goes into this. A true Christmas happening.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.