NORAD: Keeping Tabs on Santa Since 1955
This December 24, 2012 photo shows a woman monitoring the progress of Santa Claus in Washington, DC. The Santa tracker (right) is set up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER
A tradition for many families on Christmas Eve is to log into Santa Tracker to see where jolly ol’ Saint Nick has been and where he is going next. Young kids delight in the realism of Santa Tracker. It is a fun way to keep kids occupied on Christmas Eve, build the excitement of the impending holiday, and to give kids a geography lesson when they least suspect it. It may surprise some to know that the normally serious, somber, and humorless United States military is behind the fanciful tracking of the world’s most infamous and stealthy gift giver, but since the height of the Cold War, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly known as NORAD, has been playing along with the Santa myth, to the thrill of kids everywhere.
How Did NORAD Get Involved in the Santa Stalking Business?
NORAD didn’t plan to become the leader in the Santa tracking business…it all happened quite by accident. In 1955, a newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, published an ad for Sears, Roebuck and Company. The ad invited children to call the number listed and they would be connected with Santa Claus himself, right in his workshop in the North Pole. Hundreds of kids dialed the number, but there was one small problem. It was the wrong number.
Colonel Harry Shoup’s Secret Hotline Started Ringing Off the Hook
To the west of Colorado Springs, at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, the private, unlisted, hotline phone in the office of four-star colonel, Harry Shoup, started ringing a few days before Christmas Eve. Since the phone was supposed to be used only in the event of a serious military threat…this was the middle of the Cold War, after all…Col. Shoup was startled and concerned when the telephone began to ring. Imagine his surprise when he answered this line only to hear the voice of a small child asking, “Is this Santa Claus?”
Colonel Shoup Thought the Call was a Prank
Since that hotline was meant to alert him of an incoming threat to national security, Col. Shoup was understandably annoyed. He assumed the call was a silly prank. But when he scolded the caller for using a secure line for a joke, the caller began to cry. It was then that the colonel realized that it was actually a young child who was trying to call Santa at the North Pole.
Col. Shoup Became Col. Santa
“Ho, Ho, Ho!”, Colonel Shoup said to the child. He then asked for the child’s name and if he had been a good boy that year. He then asked to speak to the boy’s mother. She is the one who informed the colonel that his top-secret hotline was not so top secret anymore. Due to a misprint, everyone who saw the Sears ad in the newspaper has access to his telephone.
More and More Kids Called
As soon as he hung up, the phone rang again. Again, it was a young child hoping to talk to Santa. Col. Shoup did his best Santa impression again. The phone rang almost constantly as kids were eager to talk to Santa. The phone calls were so much of a disruption that Col. Shoup assigned a few airmen to answer the phone and pretend to be Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick.
The Colonel and NORAD Got into the Christmas Spirit
The phone calls to Santa became a running joke at NORAD and helped to put everyone in the holiday spirit. Carrying the gag one step farther, Col. Shoup called into a local radio station on Christmas Eve. He identified himself as a commander at NORAD and reported that their radar has picked up an unidentified object flying in U.S. airspace. “Why it looks like a sleigh!” he told the deejay. After that, local radio stations called Col. Shoup every hour to ask, “Where is Santa now?”
Tracking Santa Became a NORAD Tradition
NORAD and Col. Shoup continued with the Santa updates every Christmas since. In 1981, NORAD published a phone number that people could call on Christmas Eve to find out where Santa currently was. In 1997, NORAD launched a website to track Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve. Over the years, the graphics on the website have been updated every year to keep pace with technology. Today, in addition to the website, NORAD provides Santa updates via a smartphone app and social media accounts. The NORAD Santa program relies on volunteers to answer letters, emails, social media comments, and phone calls.
Col. Shoup Called the NORAD Santa Program His Proudest Accomplishment
As the Santa Tracker Program gained traction, Col. Shoup was recognized for his for his compassion for young children and for fostering their belief in Santa Claus. He received thank you letters from people all over the world and, as an elderly man, he carried some of these letters around with him in his locked briefcase. As a military colonel and commander at NORAD, Col. Shoup was in a position to do a lot of great things, but he claimed that developing the Santa Tracker program was one of his proudest accomplishments. Col. Shoup died in Colorado Springs on March 14, 2009.
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