How US Air Defense Got into the Business of Tracking Santa

December 24, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

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It’s a pretty great story… just not the one you might think.

If you have any kids in your family, you’ve probably heard of NORAD (North American Aerospace Command) and their famous Santa Tracker. Throughout Christmas Eve, you can check their website, call them up, or even email volunteers to get Santa Claus’ exact location. In fact, they’ve been doing this for 60 years.

According to their website and many sources, the tracking began in 1955, when a Sears store placed an advertisement giving children a telephone number they could use to call Santa. Unfortunately, there was a typo and children ended up calling the CONAD (Continental Air Defense) Commander-in-Chief’s operations hotline instead. Colonel Harry Shoup, who answered the phone, had his staff check the radar and give children updates on Santa’s location. NORAD took over the tradition in 1958 when it was founded.

Unfortunately, NORAD’s claim that Rudolph's nose gives off an infrared signature that satellites can detect isn’t the only untrue part of the story. In the true story, a child did dial CONAD attempting to reach Santa based on a Sears advertisement, but she dialed a wrong number by reversing two digits, so CONAD did not actually receive floods of calls like the website states. When Colonel Shoup answered, he said: “There may be a guy named Santa Claus at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction.” 1955 marked the middle of the Cold War, so he was referring to the Soviet Union and their missiles.

SEE ALSO: German Tech Manufacturer Spreads Christmas Cheer With Drones 

A few weeks later, Colonel Shoup got the idea to have his public relations officer tell the press that they were tracking Santa: “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.” It made for a great story so the press went along with it. Who better than Santa Claus to help fight the Communists?

Perhaps the first story is a better one to tell children, but when they get a bit older, you can tell them like it is: “When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond ‘those are the people who help Santa’ rather than ‘those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.’”

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