Fact Check

Why NORAD Tracks Santa

The story of how NORAD came to track Santa's progress every Christmas Eve.

Published Dec. 22, 2012

NORAD annually tracks Santa's progress because a child trying to reach Santa via a newspaper advertisement called the wrong phone number.

Ever since the mid-1950s, generations of children in North America (and, since the advent of the Internet, children from all over the world) have eagerly turned to an annual service provided by the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to help them track the progress of Santa Claus every Christmas Eve as he departs the North Pole and traverses the globe in his reindeer-driven sleigh, delivering presents to good little boys and girls around the world.

NORAD's engaging well over a thousand people to provide a yearly Santa-tracking program seems to many like a rather whimsical venture for a staid defense-based agency to be engaging in. And, in fact, NORAD didn't set out to be in the business of providing real-time Santa updates every Christmas Eve: that service came about strictly by accident, the result of a misdialed number published in a local department store newspaper advertisement.

Back in 1955, NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) was based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At Christmastime of that year, a Sears department store advertisement placed in a Colorado Springs newspaper featured a picture of Santa urging children to "Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night." Unfortunately, the phone number included in the ad was either misprinted or misdialed, and a child who called ended up not on the phone with St. Nick but rather with one Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty that day at CONAD. Rather than informing his juvenile caller they had reached a wrong number and brusquely instructing them to get off the line, Col. Shoup opted to play along and asked his staff to accommodate the inquisitive youngster by providing them with updates on Santa's Christmas Eve progress.

The story of the accidental origins of NORAD's Santa-tracking program has been told and re-told many times over the decades. Here's how Col. Shoup's daughter related it back in 2009:

One morning that December, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations at CONAD, the Continental Air Defense Command — NORAD's predecessor — got a phone call at his Colorado Springs, Colo., office. This was no laughing matter. The call had come in on one of the top secret lines inside CONAD that only rang in the case of a crisis.

Grabbing the phone, Shoup must have expected the worst. Instead, a tiny voice asked, "Is this Santa Claus?"

"Dad's pretty annoyed," said Terri Van Keuren, Shoup's daughter, recalling the legend of that day in 1955. "He barks into the phone," demanding to know who's calling.

"The little voice is now crying," Van Keuren continued. "'Is this one of Santa's elves, then?'"

The Santa questions were only beginning. That day, the local newspaper had run a Sears Roebuck ad with a big picture of St. Nick and text that urged, "Hey,

Kiddies! Call me direct ... Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night."

But the phone number in the ad was off by a digit. Instead of connecting with Santa, callers were dialing in on the line that would ring if the Russians were attacking.

Before long, the phone was ringing off the hook, and, softening up, Shoup grabbed a nearby airman and told him to answer the calls and, Van Keuren said, "'just pretend you're Santa.'"

Indeed, rather than having the newspaper pull the Sears ad, Shoup decided to offer the countless kids calling in something useful: information about Santa's progress from the North Pole. To quote the official NORAD Santa site, "a tradition was born."

From that point on, first CONAD and then, in 1958, when NORAD was formed, Shoup's organization offered annual Santa tracking as a service to the global community. A phone number was publicized and anyone was invited to call up, especially on December 24, and find out where Santa was. Manning those phones over the years have been countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel and their families, and for many people, turning to NORAD to find out where Santa is became something to look forward to each year.

A number of recent accounts have pointed out the inconsistencies that crept into Col. Shoup's story over the years (i.e., was it a newspaper misprint or a randomly misdialed number the led a child to call; did NORAD receive misdirected calls from multiple children or a single child) and have intimated that the whole tale was a concocted work of fiction. But the basic elements of Shoup's story (if not the finer details) remained consistent across time, and no disproof or plausible alternate version of events has been offered to contradict them.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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