Each year on Christmas Eve, young boys and girls all over the world are able to follow Santa’s journey from the North Pole through the official Santa Tracker. Using United States Military radar, the Santa Tracker operates under the guidance of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Why does the US government care so much about jolly old Saint Nicholas? Well, the tradition of tracking Santa actually goes back to the height of the Cold War era, when a simple misprint started one of the few modern additions to the Santa Claus story that has actually stuck.
Origin of the Santa Tracker
In December of 1955, the Continental Air Defense Command (the precursor to NORAD) in Colorado Springs, CO, received a phone call in their Operations Center. On duty that day was Colonel Harry Shoup, who answered the call. Expecting a general or maybe even the President, Shoup was surprised when a young girl on the other end asked about the whereabouts of Santa Claus.
Shoup was initially annoyed by the call, thinking it was a joke, but when he heard the little girl start to cry on the other end, he began to play along.
It was the young child’s mother who eventually told Shoup that her daughter had found the number in a Sears department store advertisement in the local newspaper. The ad told children that they could place a call to Santa Claus. However, due to a one-digit misprint, the phone number given was actually for CONAD.
Harry Shoup’s improvisation as Santa came to be a big hit among the rest of the command center staff. Many couldn’t believe that they were now handling Santa calls.
On Christmas Eve, 1955, when Shoup walked into work, he was greeted by a picture of Santa Claus on the board used to track unidentified aircraft. Seeing a public relations opportunity for CONAD, Shoup asked his public relations officer, Colonel Barney Oldfield, to inform the press that CONAD was tracking Santa Claus’s sleigh.
The release stated that “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the US against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.”
Shoup did not intend to continue the tradition the following year, but did so when he learned that the Associated Press and United Press International were awaiting reports.
A Tradition is Born
In 1958, the Santa tracking tradition was carried on by NORAD, and over the years, reporting became even more elaborate.
Today, the military spares no expense in tracking Santa. Satellite systems, high-powered radars, and jet fighters all keep a watchful eye Saint Nick (don’t worry, it is corporate sponsors, and not your tax dollars, that fund this activity).
NORAD enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers to ensure that phone calls and emails from around the world all get answered each December 24th. The NORAD Tracks Santa website provides live updates, keeping everyone informed about Santa’s whereabouts. According to NORAD, the site receives nearly nine million unique visitors from over 200 countries and territories around the world. Volunteers will answer some 140,000 calls.
The Santa Tracker truly has become a global phenomenon, providing kids with just a little extra holiday magic each Christmas.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.