In addition to tracking and defending against potential threats to American airspace, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will once again be engaged in an unusual activity later this week: tracking Santa Claus.
NORAD — a joint effort by the United States and Canada responsible for aerospace warning and control, air sovereignty and maritime warning in the defense of North America — has been tracking St. Nick on Christmas Eve for 61 years now. The Santa Tracking program, at NORADSanta.org, began as an honest mistake thanks to a misplaced newspaper advertisement — and has grown into a multiplatform operation with its own smartphone apps and corporate technology partners.
From Humble Origins, a Growing Program
As FedTech explained last year, the story began in 1955 when, according to NORAD, a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck advertisement in the Colorado Springs Gazette urged children to call Santa on Christmas Eve. Just one problem: The ad mistakenly used the telephone number for the Continental Air Defense Command. Children hoping to speak with Santa wound up being connected to the CONAD “hotline.”
Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations at the time, came up with the idea of having his staff check the radar to see when Santa was leaving the North Pole to deliver presents. Children who called were given updates on his location. With its formation in 1958, NORAD took over the responsibility of tracking Santa every year.
The program has evolved over the years, and in the mid-1990s, NORAD set up an operations center, with volunteers manning phone banks to answer kids’ queries on Santa’s whereabouts. The Santa Tracker website launched in 1997 and has evolved significantly since then. The site features “Santa’s North Pole Village,” and includes a holiday countdown, games, activities and more. The website is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese.
NORAD spokesman Preston Schlachter said he is expecting record volumes of calls this year. “We’re seeing a steady increase,” Schlachter said. “Last year was a good year for us — we had more than 141,000 phone calls.” NORAD also had 22 million unique visits to its tracker website in 2015. Those figures were up from the 130,000 calls and 21 million unique visits it counted in 2014.
Making Use of Technology
Like everything else government agencies do, NORAD’s Santa tracker has gone mobile, and the organization has “Official NORAD Tracks Santa” apps available for Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows platforms. Users can also track Santa on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Google Plus; Santa followers just need to type “@noradsanta.”
Starting at 2:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 24, website visitors can start tuning in for the tracking. NORAD’s “Santa Cams” will stream videos on the website as Santa makes his way over various locations. Then, at 6 a.m., trackers worldwide can speak with a live phone operator about Santa’s whereabouts by dialing the toll-free number 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, any time on Dec. 24, smartphone users can ask Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant for Santa’s location, and OnStar subscribers can press the OnStar button in their vehicles to locate Santa.
“This is possible thanks to a tremendous number of military and community contributors,” Schlachter told the Gazette. “There’s a huge team that makes this happen.”
Indeed, NORAD says it has more than 70 corporate and military partners who help make the operation cost-free to taxpayers. Those include Adobe, Analytical Graphics, Inc., Avaya, Bing, the Colorado Springs Business Alliance, DoD News, Getty Images, GlobeLink Foreign Language Center, Harris, Hewlett Packard, Level 3 Communications, Microsoft, Office Depot/Office Max, OnStar, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Colorado, SiriusXM, the U.S. Air Force Academy Band, U.S. Department of State Family Liaison Office, Verizon and Microsoft’s Azure.
According to the Gazette, more than 6,000 kids per hour dial into the hotline, which is staffed by more than 1,500 volunteers who work two-hour shifts. The volunteers have scripted line of banter ready for children about how NORAD uses satellites and radar to track Santa.
However, Schlachter, who has volunteered to answer the phones on multiple Christmas Eves, told The Hill that every call into the hotline is unique. “We had a young child, a young boy from the [United Kingdom] that asked about Father Christmas,” he said. “I was quick to realize that it’s not just Santa Claus, it’s the different cultures that celebrate Santa Claus in their own way that are calling the Command Center to find out his whereabouts.”