The origins of NORAD’s Santa Tracker


Here’s the NORAD Santa Tracker. Don’t get too excited just yet — it doesn’t really fire up for about six days (only logical). It’s been around since 1955, and from ’55 to about 1996, it was primarily done via a telephone hotline, newspapers, radio, and TV. Since 1997, there’s been a strong Internet presence (first link), which I spent two working Christmas Eves monitoring every 30 minutes or so. (I have not even a shred of a life.) So … why would something like NORAD, with the fundamental job of aerospace warnings and all that, get involved with something like Santa? (Cheerful, but ultimately … SPOILER ALERT … not real.) Well, that’s a funny-ass story, and one that, as always, begins with an American company screwing something up royally.

In 1955, Sears had an idea for a print ad campaign that would give kids a direct phone number for Santa. Yep. Problem is, in their Colorado Springs, CO ad, they ran the number as “ME 2-6681.” That was one digit off. The actual number they were providing to Colorado children of the 1950s? Er, the number for CONAD, which was the pre-cursor to NORAD. Colonel Harry Shoup was working that night at CONAD. He picked up his first phone call of the night, and — well, here’s the rundown. 

“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said again.

More silence.

“Sir?” Shoup was probably, at this point, trying not to panic. Silence on the crisis line. “Can you read me alright?”

Finally, the caller spoke up. It was not a commanding officer. It was … a little girl. And she was confused, too. “Are you really Santa Claus?” she asked.

Shoup, at that point, demanded to know who was calling, Terri Van Keuren, his daughter, remembers. He was brusque. This didn’t make any sense.

“The little voice is now crying,” Van Keuren recalls.

The voice didn’t give up, though. “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?”

It must be a prank, Shoup thought. But, as he scanned the room, the “stony, serious faces” of his fellow men suggested otherwise. Then it occurred to him: Lines must have, literally, gotten crossed. There must have been “some screwup on the phones.”

And then Shoup made a fateful, delightful decision: He decided to play along.

“Yes, I am,” he answered the caller, be-elfing himself. “Have you been a good little girl?”

There you have it. An endearing tradition allowing us to use national defense resources to track Santa Claus was born because someone at Sears made a typo. America is a crazy-arse place.

Now we’re in 2013, and the Norad Santa Tracker is a fairly popular, semi-well-ingrained part of Christmas culture (at least for those with good Internet connectivity). Last year, 22.3 million people tracked Santa on X-Mas Eve online. It’s a popular thing! So for 2013, NORAD releases a new video promoting the concept:

… and of course, there are fighter jets accompanying Santa, so people get up in arms. The jets are unarmed, it should be noted: they’re Canadian Air Force CF-18s. Their wing racks do carry bombs/missiles, but in this clip, they’re empty.

Here’s a few examples of some social reaction to this whole situation:

I saw another tweet with someone calling this “the military-industrial kerfluffle.” I laughed. This is all insanely ridiculous. During the ages where your appreciation for Santa is the highest, you probably have no idea what a fighter jet is — you’d probably think it was just a kinda cool thing accompanying Santa. It’s not really a parent’s responsibility to start deeply going into war with a five-year-old because of a YouTube video (at least I don’t think so). Gloss it over for the time being, get at it when they’re more ready. And when they get older, explain the whole ‘War on Christmas’ to ’em as well.

Non-issue, but the Sears story into references to “goose-stepping to school” because of a NORAD Tracker promo video entertained me enough to write something down about it.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

Reply If You'd Like