Throughout today, tonight, and into early Christmas morning, children will want to know just how close the Jolly Old Red delivery guy – Santa Claus – really is to landing his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer on their rooftops.
With visions of Star Wars Grogu Mandalorian plush toys and Marvel Avengers Action Figure sets dancing in their heads, they’ll wonder if the elf of all elves can really shimmy down their chimneys with the goods. They’ll likely follow his progress using apps on their parents’ smartphones. Or they can call the toll-free number for updates, courtesy of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The agency again is tracking Santa’s progress in a tradition that began 66 years ago this day – with a wrong telephone number.
Yes, a wrong number, but not just any wrong number: It rang directly into a national security agency’s hotline during the Cold War era, and an opportunistic colonel turned it into huge public relations tool for the agency.
Here’s the story.
In 1954, as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to mount, President Eisenhower established the Continental Air Defense Command Center (CONAD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In December 1955, a Sears store in Colorado Springs took out an advertisement in a local newspaper telling kids they could talk to Santa himself and included a phone number where he could be found in the store’s Toyland department.
Just one small issue there: The errant number didn’t go to Santa. Nor did it go to Sears or its Toyland. It rang on CONAD’s hotline, designated strictly for calls of the utmost importance – like a warning that atomic warheads were headed America’s way.
So that night, when the first call came in, Colonel Henry Shoup expected President Eisenhower on the other end warning him of imminent danger. Instead, the caller was a child. An account of that call:
“Yes, this is Colonel Shoup,” he answered. The kid clammed up, so Shoup spoke again. “Sir, this is Colonel Shoup.”
Again, no response. He asked if the person on the other end of the line could hear him. Finally, the child said, “Are you really Santa Claus?”
It didn’t take long for Shoup – a father of four – to figure out what had happened and asked to talk to the child’s mother. She explained that the kid called the number from Sears’ newspaper ad.
Shoup knew other children soon would be calling as well, and called the phone company to have them transfer the mistaken number to the Sears store. Until then, he told his staff to begin answering calls and to tell the children of Santa’s whereabouts at the moment. (Santa, of course, was quite busy at that moment driving his sleigh.)
The colonel made the best of the situation by sending out an official CONAD press release stating they were, indeed, tracking the Jolly Old Elf coming from the North Pole at an altitude of 35,000 feet and a speed of 45 knots.
The agency also took the opportunity to proclaim that the U.S. would “guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas,” History.com wrote in 2017. “That was a clear allusion to the atheistic Soviets and their fellow Communists.”
The story also went on to state that when Shoup went to the operations center that night, he saw that someone had drawn Santa’s “route” on the huge map of the world on the wall – along with some UFOs.
“The idea for the Santa Tracker was born as Shoup looked at that map,” on December 24, 1955, History.com wrote.
Three years later, the more expansive North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) replaced CONAD and has been the official Santa tracker every Christmas Eve ever since.
While Santa maintains the same “Made at the North Pole” manufacturing supply chain and distribution system he’s always used, NORAD has gone high tech with apps available for smartphones to follow his progress on Christmas Eve. Or, kids can call the toll-free telephone number listed on NORAD’s web page.
Volunteers will handle as many as 70,000 calls and 12,000 emails between 2 a.m. Christmas Eve until 3 a.m. on Christmas Day.