NORAD’s “Santa Tracker”
By Eugenia Moskowitz
Some Christmas traditions are old, some are new, and some you may think are new until you research them and discover just how old they really are.
One such tradition is the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (or NORAD’s) “Santa Tracker,” where children can cue in to what Santa is doing at any given moment via their smartphones or tablets. This is pretty boring throughout the year, when Santa is either “eating healthy with his elves,””training his reindeer,” or “playing cards with Mrs. Claus.” But on Christmas Eve the action heats up, and NORAD, due to its high-tech military detection system, lets children know exactly where on the map Santa has been, where he now is, and approximately when he will be in their time zone. Which is when they must go to bed for him to come.
Located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, NORAD is a United States/Canadian bi-national organization whose mission is aerospace warning and control for all of North America, including the detection and warning of attacks against it. But on December 24, 1955, NORAD took on a different role when a Sears Roebuck ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper misprinted Santa’s number for the private phone of Col. Harry Shoup at NORAD’s command center.
Shoup’s daughter Pam Farrell said in an NPR StoryCorps interview that on Christmas Eve at the height of the Cold War her father’s red phone rang and a tiny voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?” Shoup’s other children Rick Shoup and Terri VanKeuren remembered their father telling them that he was upset by the call, thinking it was a joke, but then the tiny voice started crying. So Shoup quickly switched gears, ho-ho-ho’d, and asked the child in a jolly voice if he’d been good. He then asked to speak to the child’s mother, and she got on the phone and asked Shoup if he’d seen the newspaper ad. The calls kept coming, so Shoup put some airmen on the red phone to act like Santa while he figured out what to do.
But no defense could stem this invasion, and Farrell said, “The airmen had a big glass board with the U.S. and Canada on it that they would track airplanes on, but when Dad stepped out and walked back in, there was now a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole.” He liked it and called a local radio station saying he had an unidentified flying object and, “Why, it looks like a sleigh!” Radio stations called Shoup every half hour asking, “Where’s Santa now?” And thus, from that magical Christmas Eve in 1955, the Santa Tracker was officially born, with Shoup telling his staffers to give all the children who called “an official current location for Santa Claus.”
The tradition has been ongoing at NORAD for the past 61 years. Shoup’s children said that later in life their father got thank-you letters from all over the world and that well into his 90s he carried them around with him in a locked briefcase, “like it was top-secret information.” As important as he was, they said, this has become the thing he is known for and also the thing he was the most proud of.
Shoup died in 2009. But his legacy lives on. Smartphones allow children to watch the world map and see for themselves exactly where Santa is as the day/night demarcation line travels across the globe and approaches their home. Magical, indeed.
To talk to NORAD staff about Santa’s exact location, call 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723). To track Santa, go to http://www.noradsanta.org. To learn more about NORAD itself, go to http://www.norad.mil.
CAPTION: Colonel Harry Shoup, in a photo taken during the Cold War. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)