With Christmas only days away, now seems like a great time to brush up on how to track Santa Clause’s progress through North America with the help of NORAD, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
NORAD tracks everything that flies in North American airspace as a part of its defense responsibilities (which are shared by the United States and Canada), and they’ve been offering updates on Santa’s progress in one form or another for more than 70 years.
The first official report regarding jolly old Saint Nick issued by the U.S. military came in the form of an Air Force communique in 1948. The press release indicated that an “early warning radar net to the north” had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet [4,300 meters], heading 180 degrees.” At the time, the report may have been seen as little more than a bit of fun between public affairs officials and the press. After all, in that pre-internet era, most people only got wind of official statements by way of the press. As luck would have it, the Associated Press also had the Christmas spirit that year, and pushed the important news out across the country.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Air Force had lost its Christmas spirit by the following year, and America’s defense apparatus wouldn’t play a role in tracking Santa’s Christmas journey again for seven long years… and even then, it came about in a rather unusual way.
According to legend, it all started when a SEARs department store put out an ad in a newspaper out of Colorado Springs called The Gazette. The ad included a phone number children could call to speak to Santa, but because of a misprint (or a child’s mistake), one young caller got connected to NORAD’s predecessor command, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center. From there, the legend gets shifty, but it seems clear that CONAD recognized the public relations opportunity presented by this mistake, establishing a new Christmas tradition that extends to this day.
Fast forward to 2020, where NORAD’s Santa tracker comes complete with a cheer-filled website aimed at kids, complete with a layout of Santa’s village. You can click on different buildings to view video clips about Santa and NORAD, listen to holiday music, buy gifts, or even to play games in the Christmas arcade. According to NORAD, they see as many as 15 million unique visitors from 20 different countries on the Santa Tracker each year.
“It’s not something that just gets started and implemented in December,” says NORAD spokesman Preston Schlachter, who leads NORAD’s preparation. “As soon as the program is over on Christmas, we are talking about lessons learned and how we can make changes for the following year.”
While NORAD’s days tracking Santa may have begun with one child dialing a wrong number, today, the Santa Tracker is maintained by a small army of volunteers who pack into conference rooms, taking calls from children around the world and offering up the latest update about his progress. Some of the volunteers who will be taking calls this year even remember calling into the hotline as kids themselves. For many of the volunteers, the Santa Tracker effort feels more important than ever–as kids around the world struggle to contend with the unique challenges 2020 has been full of.
“There is an even bigger spirit behind the work this year,” explained Susan Sullivan, a Microsoft senior program manager. Microsoft has been collaborating with NORAD to build chatbots to answer kid’s questions and to help support updating the website. “I do imagine kids being more engaged online, more interested in the uplifting aspect of Christmas, and families taking the time to really make it special.”
“Everything does feel like it’s more important this year,” she adds. “It feels like there’s a bigger opportunity to bring joy.”
How to use NORAD’s Santa tracker
The tradition may have started on the phone, but these days, more people interact with the Santa tracker from their smartphone or computer. Phone lines will still be open this Christmas, but there will be fewer call center volunteers due to social distancing requirements brought about by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But if you prefer calling in the old fashioned way, you can do that starting on December 24th by dialing 1-877-HI-NORAD.