Santa Claus is coming to town. We know this because the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has once again commenced tracking the progress of the jolly old elf as he makes his appointed rounds on Christmas Eve.
NORAD is a joint military command shared by the United States and Canada that closely monitors virtually everything that flies over North America. Each year on December 24, its sophisticated surveillance array of satellites, radars and fighter aircraft is trained upon the North Pole awaiting the departure of Santa Claus and his gift-laden sleigh. Once airborne, Santa’s progress is continuously updated throughout his nocturnal mission, to the delight of children of all ages.
So how did one of the world’s most advanced military installations take on the mission of tracking St. Nick? By a fortuitous accident and the heart-warming response of a caring Air Force officer.
On November 30, 1955, the Sears store in Colorado Springs ran a newspaper ad inviting children to call Santa Claus directly on his personal phone line. In the event, the number printed in the paper was off by one digit. Instead of reaching the North Pole, the first young caller reached Colonel Harry Shoup, the duty officer assigned to the emergency hot line at the Continental Air Defense Command (the predecessor of NORAD).
America was embroiled in the Cold War and a call on the hot line could signal a nuclear attack. Instead, the timid voice on the line asked: “Are you really Santa Claus?”
At first Colonel Shoup assumed the call was a practical joke, and he was not amused. He soon realized, however, what had happened, and as a father of four himself he decided to play along. He listened to the child’s Christmas wish list before asking to speak with his mother, who explained the mix-up.
Embracing a welcome respite from the usual tension in the command center, he assigned several other airmen to take the incoming calls. Then he called the local radio station to report an unidentified flying object that “looks like a sleigh”. This was followed with a press release to newspapers across the nation informing children that a big red sleigh was approaching from the North Pole at an altitude of 35,000 feet.
Returning to the command center on December 24, Colonel Shoup discovered that one of his airmen had drawn an image of Santa’s sleigh on the 3-story wall map, and the charming holiday tradition of tracking Santa was born.
That tradition continues thanks to the generosity of numerous corporate sponsors and over 1,500 volunteers from the US and Canadian military and civilian defense organizations.
Interested parties (and who isn’t?) can visit the official NORAD tracking website at NoradSanta.org or download the apps for iPhone and Android to learn more about Santa’s annual mission, play games, and visit the virtual gift shop. The site also offers technical specifications regarding the sleigh and Santa’s reindeer, as well as answers to (or more properly speculation about) frequently asked questions.
Updates are available all day on Christmas Eve by email as well. And just as in 1955, children can still speak directly with a NORAD operations staff member by calling 1-877-HI-NORAD any time after 6 AM on December 24.
In 2014, Colonel Shoup’s children recounted his story for the NPR StoryCorps project. They told of how he continued to carry a briefcase full of thank you letters with him well into his 90s. And while he was an accomplished military officer, they noted that his role in establishing the long-lived tradition of tracking Santa was the thing of which he was proudest.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to one and all.
Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA