Accident starts era of Santa-tracking

A mistaken printing of a telephone number in a department store’s advertisement could have been a calamity. Instead, it launched an annual event through which children can track Santa Claus as he makes his worldwide Christmas Eve journey to deliver presents.

In addition to watching the global excursion of a jolly elf and his team of reindeer, children also can play games and learn other facts provide by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Each year, its Santa Tracker website attracts tens of millions of children.

Yes, this powerful, 60-year-old agency that provides surveillance, warning and protection against aerospace or maritime threats to the United States and Canada gives children the chance to follow Santa Claus on his flight.

It started with the printing of a wrong number.

Tracking Santa started in 1955, when the original agency was known as the Continental Air Defense Command. None of its protocols or assignments had indicated that one day it would be tracking Santa Claus.

That changed with the printing of a wrong number in a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck and Co. advertisement. The number was supposed to connect children with Santa Claus so they could have a chat with the holiday icon.

Instead, the number put youngsters through to the Continental Air Defense Command’s commander-in-chief operations hotline.

Col. Harry Shoup was the director of operations and crew commander on duty at the time children began calling his emergency line.

This wasn’t the first time the American military had connections with Santa Claus. The United States Air Force issued a public communique Dec. 24, 1948, that they had seen an “unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet.”

One version of the story said Shoup immediately told his staff to check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Young callers were given updates through the night on the sleigh’s location.

Another version said he grumbled at the first caller before realizing that tracking Santa Claus would be a good public relations gesture.

Either way, under his command, the procedure started in 1955. He told Col. Barney Oldfield, his public relations officer, to announce his agency not only would monitor Santa Claus’s travels that year, it would protect the old elf from harm.

This was supposed to be a one-time event. But the next year, news outlets started asking Oldfield if the agency would be tracking Santa Claus again. Shoup agreed it should.

By 1958, the United States and Canada created NORAD as a joint North American air defense command. The new agency carried on the tradition and mission of keeping tabs on Santa as he traveled around the world.

That special duty was in addition to the agency’s normal missions of aerospace warning of manmade objects in space in addition to detection, validation and warning of attack, as well as maritime warning for North America to protect the continent against attack by missiles, aircraft or space vehicles.

In 1981, the agency had a designated telephone number that children could call for Santa updates. While children still call – volunteers report up to 40 calls an hour as Christmas Eve approaches – NORAD began using social media and the Internet since 1997 to interact with the public.

The “NORAD Tracks Santa” program uses the agency’s technology, but only limited government money to provide information about the sleigh’s whereabouts, an agency spokesperson said. Civilian and military volunteers help manage this program.

The program is funded through corporate donors, who provide computer servers, website design, video imaging, Santa’s tracking map and telephone services.

The NORAD website has a countdown to Santa’s visit as well as multiple interactive activities for children.

This year, they can explore the North Pole, hear Santa Claus’s favorite songs, play games that are changed daily, or visit a library that has information about Santa Claus, his reindeer and holiday traditions around the world. They also can learn about NORAD’s other duties.

They can visit the NORAD Santa activities online at, or follow it on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and

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