Colorado Springs-based NORAD uses high-tech instruments to let kids know where Santa is on Christmas Eve.
It all began with a simple typo.
In 1955, during the Cold War, a holiday tradition was born when a Colorado Springs newspaper misprinted a Sears and Roebuck ad offering local kids a chance to talk to Santa Claus on the telephone.
“Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night, or come in and visit me at Sears Toyland,” the ad read. A phone number—printed incorrectly—was listed.
Cue the unfathomable coincidence. Instead of reaching Kris Kringle, the number actually connected the caller to a secret military hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, where a man named Col. Harry Shoup was stationed to respond to impending airborne threats to North America. When the line rang in December 1955, Shoup heard not a general at the Pentagon, but the voice of a child, asking to speak to Santa.
Shoup played along. A chat with the kid’s mother clued him in to the newspaper’s mistake, but then more calls from children flooded in. The colonel assigned staff to field them. Their instructions: Be Santa.
In 1958, the Continental Air Defense Command evolved into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), and with it, the tradition of answering calls on Christmas Eve solidified into a much-loved—and much publicized— annual event: the NORAD Tracks Santa program.
Today, more than 1,400 volunteers converge on NORAD’s headquarters on Dec. 24 to man the phone lines from four in the morning to the stroke of midnight on Christmas. Calls come in from about 200 countries. “Children always want to know two things,” says Maj. Mark Lazane, current director of the NORAD Tracks Santa team. “They want to know where Santa is, and when he’s getting to their house.”
To answer the first question, the volunteers refer to NORAD’s real-time map of Santa’s whereabouts on the night of his flight, which “tracks” the big man’s movements using NORAD’s web of infrared defense satellites and ground-based radar. Though Santa’s route changes yearly based on weather patterns, he always starts at the international date line and works his way west around the world, Lazane says. “Luckily, we’ve got the satellites and the radars and the eyes in the sky to help track him. Rudolph’s red nose helps us a lot.” The flight map is beamed to NORAD’s Santa-tracking website, which goes live from Dec. 1 to 31. Last year, the site (published in eight languages) received more than 18 million hits during the Christmas month, with an additional 3 million NORAD Tracks Santa app downloads.
Despite the success of the website, the real heart of the program—the magic that sticks in the public’s imagination—is the call center. “Last year, people flew in from as far away as New York and Nebraska,” Lazane says. “They’ll sign up for two or three shifts—six, seven, eight hours. This is their Christmas. We see from age 15 all the way up to 85, and everywhere in between.” Special volunteers fluent in multiple languages field calls from non- English-speaking countries. For the last several years, even the First Lady of the United States has taken calls from a remote location.
Reflecting on dozens of hours he himself has spent in the call center, Lazane can’t think of a way he’d rather spend his holiday. “It’s an amazing way to bring good will to kids, and to help people understand what NORAD does. It’s really a win-win.”