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NORAD: Omicron variant won't stop Santa Claus' mission to spread joy in 2021

Canadian 22 Wing Forces based in Ontario, Canada, work to help track Santa in unison with NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian combatant command headquartered in Colorado and tasked with tracking aerial phenomena in North America.
Cpl. Rob Ouellette, for NORAD
Canadian 22 Wing Forces based in Ontario, Canada, work to help track Santa in unison with NORAD, the U.S.-Canadian combatant command headquartered in Colorado and tasked with tracking aerial phenomena in North America.

While the coronavirus pandemic has brought with it disappointments that have left some children worried or sad, Santa Claus expects to bring joy and merriment to them on his annual Christmas Eve globetrot.

That’s according to NORAD headquarters in Colorado, which is already buzzing as it prepares to track every move of the mysterious white-bearded man clad in red as he leaves the North Pole with a bag filled with toys.

Maj. Cameron Hillier could not divulge any military intelligence secrets, but told KUNC that the pandemic, including the rapidly spreading omicron variant, would not halt Santa.

“I can tell you that Santa's been doing this for many, many, many years through pandemics and a variety of other illnesses — even the common cold,” Hillier said. “He’s been able to successfully deliver gifts each and every Christmas Eve and we see no reason for that to change this year.”

Hillier emphasized that the pandemic did not hinder Santa last year.

Yet it will pose some challenges for trackers at the Santa Operations Center, which begins taking calls Friday at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) toll free. Fewer volunteer phone operators are available this year due to COVID-19 concerns for the second year in a row, Hillier said.

“In years past, we've had about 1,500 volunteers,” he said. “Last year, we had 175, but this year we're picking that back up to 500-plus with another 150 supporting remotely.”

Callers who do not reach a person will instead hear an updated recording giving Santa’s exact location.

Hillier noted that kids around the world can also track Santa’s journey in real time at or through multiple online platforms linked to the site.

Assisted by his wife, Mrs. Claus, a clan of industrious elves, at least eight unrelenting tiny reindeer, an aerodynamic sleigh, and the dreams of children, Santa has never failed in his mission, according to NORAD logs going back to the 1950s. Since then, Santa came close to canceling Christmas just once.

"Well I'm sad to report there's still no activity from the North Pole," Andrew Lawrence, a first lieutenant, told reporters in the 1980s. "I can see genuine concern on the faces of all the trackers and flight analysts here at NORAD command.”

In the end, despite a very late start, Santa ultimately completed his journey, as usual, with mere moments to spare. NORAD also reported that in 1964 and 1971, Santa was running late, but had completed his trip before sunrise.

St. Nick travels faster than any known military jet, according to NORAD, a bi-national U.S.-Canadian combatant command that tracks his high-velocity movements through a “sensor-layered network” that scours the skies around the clock for foreign objects. The network, Hillier said, involves radar, satellites and jet fighters. Some of it is in the Arctic, far away from the NORAD operations center in Colorado Springs.

This year is the 66th that NORAD has tracked Santa, a tradition that began in December of 1955 when U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered the hotline meant to inform him if North America was under enemy attack. But on the other end of the call, there was a small voice, a boy asking if Shoup was Santa Claus.

Shoup was at first annoyed, even upset, his grown children, Terri Van Keuren, Richard Shoup and Pamela Farrell, recalled forStoryCorpsin 2014. When the boy started to cry, Shoup suddenly changed his tone, bellowing, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" asking the boy if he'd been good, then telling him to put his mother on the phone.

It turned out that the number was a misprint in a department store’s newspaper ad for a Santa wish line. The colonel was amused enough to assign his staff to answer the 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."

The colonel’s troops ran with the idea. They placed a likeness of Santa on the center’s tracking board. The colonel was shocked to see it. Staffers apologized, offering to take it down, but Shoup instead picked up the phone and called a radio station.

"We have an unidentified flying object,” he told the station. “Why, it looks like a sleigh!"

Over the years, reporters, especially meteorologists with their weather maps, have relied on NORAD’s Santa Operations Center for up-to-the-minute updates on Santa’s journey.

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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