On November 30, 1955, a phone rang on Col. Harry Shoup’s desk at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). CONAD was tasked with watching for a Soviet attack by air and alerting Strategic Air Command. In the midst of the Cold War, a phone call to Colonel Shoup’s desk could have brought critical news for national security.
However, when Colonel Shoup answered, the little voice on the other end asked “Is this Santa Claus?”
Why call CONAD to reach Santa? It all started with a misdial. That year, Sears ran an ad where Santa invited young people to “Call me direct on my telephone.” However, one caller didn’t heed the ad’s warning to “be sure and dial the correct number,” and instead reached Colonel Shoup—sparking a chain of events that would become a Christmas tradition.
In the 1960s, NORAD sent records to radio stations with updates on Santa’s path to play for their listeners. The 1970s brought with it Santa Tracker commercials. By 1997, Santa Tracker went digital—launching the website may of our younger readers will be familiar with. (Which has, of course, received some enhancements since then.)
How NORAD tracks Santa has also evolved over the years. Their website explains that they now use a combination of radar, satellites that “detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem,” and jet fighters. “Canadian NORAD fighter pilots, flying the CF-18, take off out of Newfoundland and welcome Santa to North America,” explains NORAD, and in the United States, “American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15s, F16s or F-22s get the thrill of flying with Santa.”