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He's Coming To Town: How NORAD Started Tracking Santa Claus

NORAD Public Affairs, Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braym
NORAD volunteers answer phone calls to their Santa hotline in 2007. The tradition of tracking Santa on his trip around the world started in 1955 by accident.

Every year, kids across the globe follow Santa Claus on his Christmas Eve journey from the North Pole. The source of the information is NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in Colorado Springs.

Last December the website received 18 million visits from people around the globe speaking many different languages - along with evidence that kids still use phones. There were 126,000 calls last year to NORAD's Santa line.

The military is bracing for more of the same this year, according to U.S. Air Force Maj. Mark R. Lazane, who noted that NORAD's U.S.-Canadian mission is to scour the skies with radars and satellites for aerial threats. That technology, he said, tracks a certain famous reindeer on Dec. 24.

"Rudolph's nose provides a great amount of heat and we're able to track that infrared signature -- similar as to if a missile was to be launched anywhere on the Earth, NORAD would be able to track that," Lazane said. "So that same heat signature idea is how we're able to track Santa."

This is NORAD's 63rd year of tracking, a story begins with the Continental Air Defense Command, as NORAD used to be called. Back then, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered a hotline that would inform him if there was an attack so he could let commanders know if they needed to scramble jets and, ultimately, inform the president.

Credit NORAD/U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, also known as the "Santa Colonel" for his role in starting NORAD's annual tradition of tracking Santa.

In December of 1955 the hotline rang. When Shoup answered, there was a small voice on the other end that asked him if he was Santa Claus. Shoup was annoyed at first, even upset, his children -- Terri Van Keuren, Richard Shoup, and Pamela Farrell -- told StoryCorps in 2014.

That made the boy who called cry and the crying made Shoup change his tone. He began to say, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and asked the boy if he'd been good before telling him to put his mother on the phone.

It turned out that the hotline number was misprinted in a newspaper ad by a department store with a with Santa wish line. The colonel rolled with it and assigned some staffers to field the Santa calls.

"It got to be a big joke at the command center," Shoup's kids said. "You know, the old man's really flipped his lid this time."

On a big board that tracked planes, staffers drew a picture of Santa on a sleigh being pulled by reindeer. When the colonel saw it, he was shocked. There were immediate apologies and offers to take it down, but Shoup looked at it for a while. Then he picked up the phone and called a radio station.

"We have an unidentified flying object - why, it looks like a sleigh!" he said, according to his kids.

And so a Christmas tradition was born.

Credit The White House/U.S. Air Force
Volunteers from Marines to teenagers to presidents and first ladies have helped answer phone calls from children on Christmas Eve.

Reporters called every hour to see where Santa was on his journey. Over the years, the reports became a staple for weather reporters and their green-screen maps.

NORAD staffers had fun chronicling the drama of a flight that begins in the frozen and inhospitable Arctic and crisscrosses the planet at a speed faster than any military jet ever built. In the 1980s, Andrew Lawrence, a first lieutenant with NORAD, provided a report that Santa was on the brink of canceling Christmas.

"Well I'm sad to report there's still no activity from the North Pole," he told reporters. "I can see genuine concern on the faces of all the trackers and flight analysts here at NORAD command. Santa has never been this late before. Of course we logged late departures of Santa in 1964 and 1971, but he's never been this far off schedule. Many here are saying that Santa may not come this year because not enough little boys and girls were good."

"It's probably the thing he was proudest of."

But it was only a delay. NORAD eventually tracked Santa's supersonic journey that night.

The whole crazy business of tracking Santa turned out to be a defining moment in the colonel's life. Shoup received letters from all over the world. People thanked him for his sense of humor.

In his old age, he carried those letters around in a briefcase with a lock on it like it was top secret, his kids said.

"You know, he was an important guy, but this is the thing he's known for," his kids said. "It's probably the thing he was proudest of."

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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