Today, the North American Aerospace Defence Command — better known as NORAD — celebrates its 60th year of tracking Santa Claus on his annual Christmas Eve flight around the world.
It’s a veritiable Christmas tradition in the United States.
Even tech giants like Google and, later, Microsoft have gotten in on the action, using NORAD’s data to give kids a map showing where Santa’s sleigh is flying, right up until Christmas morning.
But 60 years is a long time. There weren’t cell phones back then. Or personal computers. Back then, the only way to find out Santa’s location was a phone call.
A mistake in a newspaper ad
The whole thing started in 1955.
As NORAD’s own story goes, a Colorado Springs-area Sears store printed a newspaper ad urging children to dial in to talk to Santa. Except that there was a typo, and the number actually went to CONAD, a military agency charged with spotting nuclear missiles fired from the Soviet Union.
When a child called in to CONAD on Christmas Eve asking where Santa was, man-in-charge Colonel Harry Shoup first thought it was a prank call. But then he decided to run with it, ordering his men to field calls from children on Santa’s whereabouts all night.
A heartwarming tradition was born.
Unfortunately, this version of history doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, as reported by Gawker’s Paleofuture.
The part about a kid dialling into CONAD asking about Santa was true, but it was in late November, not Christmas Eve. There was probably no typo in that Sears ad; the kid just dialed a wrong number. And Shoup didn’t really have that great a sense of humour.
The more cynical version of the story is that the US military saw an opportunity to score some PR points with the public at the height of the Cold War, and took inspiration from that kid’s call for a marketing stunt.
By Christmas, CONAD and the United States military was boasting of how it would keep tabs on Santa and the North Pole, just in case the Soviet Union tried to wage a real, actual war on Christmas. Really.
Regardless of its origins, NORAD Tracks Santa grew from there into something that kids have looked forward to for generations.
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