Geek Out

The Curious Origin of NORAD's Santa Tracking

Once upon a time, when everything was black and white and the Russians had horns and tails, someone printed an ad asking kids to call Santa Claus using a very wrong telephone number.


The time was 1955. The place, Colorado Springs. The ad was printed by Sears, and the number… well, the number wasn’t Santa’s phone at the North Pole. It wasn’t even the gold and glitter phone at his secret bachelor pad in Las Vegas. Someone at Sears’ ad department made a mistake, so the phone number printed in the ad wasn’t the one that the Colorado Springs store had set up to take note of the children’s wishes.

It was the hotline for the Continental Air Defense’s Director of Operations, Colonel Harry Shoup.

The CONAD boss wasn’t amused when he got his first call. Instead of a report on missiles falling over Wichita or a Soviet submarine surfacing on the San Francisco bay, what he got was a six-year old telling him what he wanted–probably his own nuclear missiles and a nuclear submarine. However, instead of telling the kid to go visit the elves tied to the warhead of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, he did something else: After the second boy called–and after realising what was happening–he told his staff to start giving Santa’s polar coordinates to every child calling that line.

In 1958, CONAD became the North American Aerospace Defence Command, a joint operation between the United States and Canada. By then, the event was already being covered by the media, and kids were calling NORAD’s phone number like crazy. That Christmas Eve, hundreds of volunteers at Cheyenne Mountain and Peterson Air Force base spent part of their night answering the phone and telling kids where Santa was.

The rest, as it usually goes, is history.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of NORAD’s Santa Tracking System, which in 1997 got into the Web–much to the relief of NORAD volunteers. [Norad Santa Tracking, Wikipedia]