As a young child living in snowy and cold locales like Wyoming, Iowa, Missouri and North Dakota, I was always assured of a white Christmas. It wasn’t the snow that my brother and I looked forward to on Christmas Eve, however, but rather the report that Santa was on his way.
As my father drove us to Christmas Eve candlelight services in our Ford station wagon, the car radio would be tuned to whatever channel was playing Christmas music. My brother and I would listen for the break between songs when the broadcaster would report that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had spotted a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer leaving the North Pole. Imagine our excitement when after church services were over and we were back in the car, the NORAD Santa Tracker had updates claiming the jolly man was “somewhere over Nova Scotia”, which we only knew as somewhere in Canada.
NORAD first reported of Santa’s incursion into US airspace back in 1948. The Associated Press passed along the report to the general public as news. Santa’s location wasn’t reported again by the agency until several years later, though.
The NORAD Santa Tracker program began in 1955, supposedly when the Sears department store in Colorado Springs ran an advertisement claiming children could place a call to Santa. The number included in the ad was was one digit off, however, and children who called reached the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). Some claim the calls came into a “red telephone” hotline that connected CONAD directly to the Strategic Air Command (a rather unlikely scenario, since hotlines weren’t accessible from outside). The crew commander on duty told those answering the phone to give all the children who called in a “current location” for Santa.
Given the public relations opportunity for the agency, as well as queries from the Associated Press and United Press International, Santa’s whereabouts were reported by CONAD, and later by its replacement, NORAD. As the years passed, the reports became more elaborate, with tales of Royal Canadian Air Force planes escorting the sleigh to its next destination.
Today, children can track Santa at the NORAD Santa Tracker website, which includes activities, a Santa village, and a countdown clock. Santa Cams show CGI images of Santa Claus flying over landmarks. There’s even a Twitter account, @NORADSanta, for the service.
NORAD continues to provide updates to news agencies every Christmas Eve and uses volunteers to answer the phones when children call to ask about Santa’s whereabouts.