Have you ever wanted to know exactly when Santa will arrive? Well, you cant rack him through the NORAD system. NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command and since 1955 tracks Santa around the Globe as he delivers presents to the kids waiting for him. But how did it all start? On December 24, 1948, the US Air Force issued a communique claiming that they had detected an ”unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet [4,300 meters], heading 180 degrees.”
Every year, millions of children follow Santa Claus’ journey around the world with the NORAD Santa Tracker, which uses military radar to track Santa’s flight as he delivers gifts to all the good little boys and girls. But not everyone knows that this popular Christmas tradition began over 50 years ago with a typo in a Colorado newspaper ad.
In 1955, Sears Roebuck & Co. ran an advertisement in a Colorado Springs-area newspaper with a phone number that children could call to speak with Santa. But rather than being a direct line to the North Pole, the misprinted number instead connected to a telephone on the desk of the Continental Air Defense Command’s director of operations, Col. Harry Shoup.
Terri Van Keuren, one of Shoup’s daughters, recalls that red phone being an important one.
“Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” Van Keuren told StoryCorps when she and her siblings visited recently to share the story of how the Santa tracking program began. So when the phone rang one day that December, Col. Shoup was surprised when a small voice on the other line asked for Santa. Although initially annoyed by the call, Shoup played along, his children told StoryCorps. When the calls continued, Shoup began staffing the line with airmen to answer for Santa. On Christmas Eve, the airmen added Santa’s sleigh to the glass board the command center used to track flights over the United States.
In 1958 NORAD was formed and it got the task to track Santa every December since then. Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web Site receives several million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world. Volunteers typically answer more than 130,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children across the globe. Today, each volunteer handles about 12,000 e-mails beyond the calls, most of these contacts happening during the 20 hours from 4 AM on December 24 until midnight MST on December 25.
A website called NORADSanta.org was established to allow project access for Internet users. Not only does NORAD simulate the tracking of Santa’s sleigh, but it also tells the user the exact amount of presents he is “delivering” at any moment on Christmas Eve. NORAD begins “tracking” at 12:00 a.m. MST, and even provides a depiction of Santa’s pre-delivery ritual. In 2019, the noradsanta.org website received 8.9 million visitors and in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic the volunteers still answered phone calls and the 3D depiction of Santa Claus on the tracker showed him wearing a mask while in his sleigh. Former First Lady Michelle Obama participated in the program from 2009 to 2016, answering phone calls.
According to Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, the NORAD Tracks Santa program is “one of the few modern additions to the centuries-old Santa Claus story that have stuck.” Bowler stated that the program “takes an essential element of the Santa Claus story—his travels on Christmas Eve—and looks at it through a technological lens,” therefore bringing the Santa Claus legend into the modern era.
So next year, if you want to see where is Santa Claus and how long will be until you get your present, track his sleigh on NORAD’s special website.