If you're wondering what route Santa Claus will be taking as he soars through skies this Christmas Eve, don't worry: NORAD has got you covered.
For the 55th straight year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command will be providing its Santa tracking service, offering in seven languages up-to-the moment updates on St. Nick's progress around the world.
Last year, I got a chance to look, which involves countless military volunteers, as well as donated corporate help, all in the guise of giving the curious the best information about where the jolly fellow in the red and white suit is at any given moment on December 24.
As I wrote last year, the program began in 1955 when Sears Roebuck ran an ad in a local paper in Colorado Springs, Colo.--the home of the NORAD predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center--with a phone number that kids could use to call Santa. "Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct," the ad read. "Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night."
The only problem? The number was off by a digit, and when kids called to find out what Santa was up to, they instead dialed a number that was meant only for the kinds of calls that would come if the Russians were attacking.
Answering the phone that morning, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup must have expected the worst. Instead, he heard a tiny voice ask, "Is this Santa Claus?"
"Dad's pretty annoyed," said Terri Van Keuren, Shoup's daughter, recalling the legend of that day in 1955. "He barks into the phone," demanding to know who's calling. "The little voice is now crying," Van Keuren continued. "'Is this one of Santa's elves, then?"
Shoup was apoplectic, but before long the phone was going crazy. And instead of staying angry, Shoup found an airman and told him to "just pretend you're Santa," Van Keuren recalled.
With that, as NORAD puts it, "a tradition was born."
Now, the project has become an annual favorite of thousands the world over, and each year, it gets a little bit more sophisticated. This year, Santa watchers can track his updated progress on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and TroopTube. In each case, NORAD says, simply search for "@noradsanta."
And beginning at 1 a.m ET on Christmas Eve, NORAD will be posting updates on both Google Maps and Google Earth via the NORAD Santa site. NORAD personnel will begin answering phone calls and e-mails at 3 a.m. ET on Christmas Eve and will continue to do so until 4 a.m. ET on Christmas. You can reach the program at 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, not everyone believes in Santa. But Joyce Frankovis, who handles public affairs for the NORAD Santa tracking program, said that those handling skeptical phone calls or e-mails are trained to respond with this simple answer: "We believe, based on historical data and 51 years of NORAD tracking information, that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world."
E-mails from the kids
Van Keuren said that Shoup died in March, 2009, and that in his last years, she and her family would bring the retired colonel to NORAD headquarters every year to take part in the Santa tracking program. "That was a big thrill for him," she said.
It was clear that his part in the tradition meant a lot to him, and in his final days, he would go everywhere with a briefcase full of printouts of e-mails from kids about the Santa tracking program. "For the last weeks of his life, he carried them around in his briefcase like they were top secret papers," Van Keuren said. "Those were just precious to him. I'd read them to him over and over."