“Where is Santa now?” is the thought on every child’s mind on Christmas Eve as they set out their homemade holiday cookies, a glass of milk, and carrots for Santa’s reindeer. And every year, beginning on December 1st, NORAD’s Santa Tracker helps raise excitement for the mythical visitor by inviting kids to get a sneak peek on his sleigh ride around the world.
Over the years, famous names like Michelle Obama and Ringo Star have gotten in on the tracking, answering calls from curious young people on NORAD’s Santa hotline or working as the voiceover for the Santa Cam. According to History Professor Gerry Bowler at the University of Manitoba, NORAD’s program is “one of the few modern additions to the centuries-old Santa Claus story that has stuck.” This article will answer all your burning questions about the myths and truths of NORAD’s tracking of jolly old Saint Nick.
Truth or Myth?
On a chilly Christmas Eve in 1955, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) was watching the skies from their base in Colorado when they received a call from the Red Phone. A ring from the phone was alarming, because it meant a CONAD commander or the Pentagon was calling, and it generally wasn’t with good news. U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered and across the line came the voice of a little girl, “Are you really Santa Claus?”
Shoup was surprised and confused, but decided to play along. He told the little girl that he was indeed Santa Claus and asked if she had been a good girl that year.
She told Shoup that she would leave some snacks out for Santa and his reindeer then continued to read off her Christmas list. Shoup listened intently, thanking the girl for her kindness. She then asked the question that every child asks at least once when wondering about the mystery of Santa Claus: “How does Santa get to all the kid’s houses in one night?”
Shoup answered, saying that it was the magic of Christmas, then told the girl she should head to bed so she can be asleep before Santa arrived.
What Shoup didn’t realize when he ended the call with the little girl was that she was the first in what would be a long line of calls from curious young people that night. Children were calling the CONAD station due to a typo in a local newspaper ad inviting kids to call Santa. The advertisement, which was sponsored by Sears Roebuck, read “Hey Kiddies! Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” However, the number they ran with the ad was off by a single digit.
Shoup selected a few of his men to play “Santa” for the night, answering calls from curious children and giving them Santa’s location. After this fateful night, NORAD began their yearly tracking of Santa for children everywhere.
Although this version of the story is magical and heart-warming, this is not the true history behind NORAD’s Santa Tracking.
The real story of tracking Santa started as an effort to ease the general public’s fear of attack while the country was at the height of World War II. President Eisenhower reportedly ordered for a press release offering “Christmas Guidance” to war correspondents across the globe.
The release reported that a new North Pole Command had been formed with Santa Claus directing operations aided by a small army of gnomes. They suppressed locations specifics, claiming that Santa’s methods of visiting the home of every child in the world in a single night was accomplished through “secret devices” and “special scientific techniques.”
The message’s purpose was to invite positive publicity for the Eisenhower administration and its handling of the war. The note was a hit.
In 1948, fears from World War II evolved into fears of an attack closer to home with the emergence of the Cold War. In an effort to bring more awareness to their work, the newly-established U.S. Air Force concocted a merry message of their own. It was released on Christmas Eve 1948, and reported that an “early warning radar net to the north” had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer.” The Associated Press then forwarded this “report” onto the public. Despite its moderate success, this was the only time such a notice was leaked to the press in this fashion.
That was until 1955, when the events of November 30th sparked what would become the legend of NORAD’s Santa Tracker.
On November 30, 1955, Shoup was manning a telephone at an Air Force base in Colorado (it should be noted that this was not the Red Phone). Shoup received a call from a little girl asking if Shoup was Saint Nick. Contrary to what the legend says, Shoup answered the little girl’s questions with a gruff, “there may be a guy named Santa Claus at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.”
A few weeks later, while recounting the phone call, Shoup got an idea. He sent out a press release claiming that CONAD was tracking Santa, and the press ate it up. And the following year, to give their name a little more boost, Shoup did it again.
Long after the Cold War ended, CONAD was transformed to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), and the tradition continued with millions of children worldwide tuning in every year to track their beloved and mythical jolly Saint Nick.
These days on Christmas Eve, children can log into NORAD’s Santa Tracker and see a map of the world. Tiny presents dot the locations he has already visited and the small camera icon allows children to see animated clips of Santa soaring around famous landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, and more.
Every year, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web Site receives nearly twenty million unique visitors from 200 countries worldwide. NORAD volunteers take more than 140,000 calls to the NORAD hotline from children around the world. And in the age of today’s social media, NORAD has made it possible to track Santa through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube using the handle @noradsanta.