NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has been tracking Santa for almost 60 years, but is using modern technology to engage children.
NORAD Tracks Santa became a tradition in 1955 after a Sears Roebuck store in Colorado misprinted a phone number for children to call in and talk to Santa.
The number instead went to NORAD’s predecessor. When Col. Harry Shoup picked up the phone, he was surprised to hear a little girl asking for Santa. He decided instead to tell the girl where Santa was in the sky, using radar technology.
Though originally an improvisation, NORAD Tracks Santa has since expanded into a huge operation.
The volunteers are mainly military members and their families, civilians that work at the Department of Defense, and local Coloradans. Last year, NORAD received calls from more than 100,000 children, keeping their volunteer staff of 1,250 busy all night. NORAD Tracks Santa has now gained global popularity with calls from Australia, Europe, and Asia, among others.
“And what we’ll do is we’ll staff the center—our call center—with folks that we have available that speak different languages, so if we do get somebody on that doesn’t speak English, we’ll try to give the phone call to somebody that understands their native tongue ,” says Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Lewis, a NORAD spokesman.
The system NORAD uses to track Santa is used every day of the year to watch North American air space. NORAD’s radar system does have satellites with infrared sensors capable of tracking Rudolf’s nose.
Some critics, however, feel that NORAD’s focus on military technology is inappropriate for the holidays. NORAD garnered controversy when an online video featured prominent CF-18 fighter jets flanking Santa’s sleigh on both sides. Lewis, however, says that the public shouldn’t be surprised by the prominent military symbolism on the NORAD Tracks Santa site.
“The NORAD members in Canada actually announce every year, and it’s publicly disseminated, the names of the pilots that will provide that escort for Santa once he hits North American air space,” says Lewis.
NORAD Tracks Santa 2013 Trailer on YouTube features radar tracking and fighter jets.
Children, now more tech-savvy, have started contacting NORAD in others ways.
“We spend most of our time answering emails because emails are by and large now the largest thing that’s coming into the center…Those are what we have the most fun doing, that is to say my boys and I,” says Lt. Col. John Erickson, an Alaskan stationed in Colorado. He and his family volunteer with the program.
The program even has a mobile app that people can use to track Santa.
Despite being rooted in the past, NORAD Tracks Santa has been very successful in keeping modern families entertained. With over 100,000 followers on Twitter and over a million likes on Facebook, the program continues to bring people together for the holidays. It’s a tradition with a twist.
“I’ve met people that say they have been doing this for 15-20 years. Their kids grew up through the program, and now the kids are participants as well. My daughter is now a tracker,” says Lewis.
NORAD starts tracking Santa at 6:00a.m. AKST on December 24. To learn Santa’s location, people can either call 1-877-HI-NORAD or email NORAD at email@example.com.