How a Typo Created a Christmas Staple: NORAD's Santa Tracker
Updated: Feb 14
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (more commonly known as NORAD) tracks and reports everything that flies in or around the United States and Canada—including sleighs! How did a military organization come to be the leading authority on Santa's whereabouts? You may have heard of (or even used) the NORAD Santa Tracker before to follow Santa as he makes his way around the world on Christmas Eve, delivering presents to all the children who believe in him, but did you know that it was created as the result of a typo?
A Jolly Mistake
In 1955, a young child accidentally called an unlisted number asking to speak to Santa Claus. The unlisted number was for a secret hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command (NORAD's predecessor) Operations Center. Colonel Harry Shoup, the Director of Operations, answered the call and initially thought it was a prank. However, he quickly realized that the child calling was sincere and played along, acting like he was Santa.
After speaking with the child's mother, he discovered that Sears had put out an ad with a phone number that kids could call to talk to Santa. The only problem? They listed the wrong number. But the ad had already gone out; it was too late to correct the error. Calls continued to come in to the Operations Center, and Colonel Shoup instructed some of the other airmen to act as Santa Claus.
On Christmas Eve that year, Colonel Shoup arrived at work to find that his staff had drawn a sleigh and reindeer on the glass board that was normally used to track airplanes coming in to the United States. Instead of being upset, he called a local radio station and said, "This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh" (Morris 2014). After that, radio stations would call him every hour for an update on Santa's location, and the Santa Tracker was born.
Santa Tracker Today
For 65 years, NORAD has continued to track and report Santa's location to children all over the world. Of course, things have gotten a little more high tech since 1955. Families today can follow along with Santa's journey through NORAD's social media accounts and at https://www.noradsanta.org/. There's even an app now!
The Santa Tracker has become an enormous operation and relies on hundreds of volunteers to help field calls and emails on Christmas Eve and provide updates to the families anxiously awaiting Santa's arrival. Besides checking online, you can call 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to speak to a NORAD operator who will tell you Santa's exact location, starting at 4:00 a.m. (MST) on Christmas Eve.
I highly recommend taking a few minutes to look through the Santa Tracker website. Their answers to frequently asked questions such as How can Santa travel the world within 24 hours? and What does Santa look like? made me smile. They even have Santa's sleigh's technical data: the length of the sleigh is listed as 75 cc (candy canes) / 150 lp (lollipops). The site also has games, music, and movies about Santa for people of all ages to enjoy.
Sometimes typos can come back to haunt you like the Ghost of Christmas Past, but this mistake ended up being a blessing in disguise! Thank goodness Colonel Shoup was a good sport and kept the magic of Christmas alive for an unsuspecting child all those years ago.
**If you want a treat, watch this video announcing the 65th year of the Norad Santa Tracker. It's so wholesome, it would warm even the Grinch's heart.
Morris, Jasmyn Belcher. 2014. "NORAD's Santa Tracker Began With A Typo And A Good Sport." NPR, December 19, 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/12/19/371647099/norads-santa-tracker-began-with-a-typo-and-a-good-sport.
NORAD Tracks Santa. n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020. https://www.noradsanta.org/.