The Story of NORAD and Timing Santa’s Deliveries at Christmas

NORAD’s Military Background

As people who spend a lot of time thinking about time, tracking time, and talking about time, we’ve been curious. Have you ever thought about how Santa has the time to travel around the entire Earth in a single night? You can follow his exact trajectory, in real time, with a handy little system called the NORAD Santa Tracker. We got to wondering about how this entity works or how it even came to be. Was it just a bunch of inquisitive, time-obsessed folks like us? Or was it something more?

Wikimedia Commons

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a military program formed in 1954. President Eisenhower established the organization to provide early warning of an air attack on North America. In December 1955, U.S. Airforce Colonel Harry Shoup was at the helm NORAD. He had two phones on his desk, one that was red. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon had the number to that red phone – along with every child in the country who had a certain Sears ad.

An Unlikely Role in Christmas

You see, in December 1955, the phone number of NORAD’s secret hotline ended up in a Sears circular. It was all because of a typo. The newspaper blurb encouraged children to contact Santa at the number, and calls started coming in. When the red phone first rang at the desk of Colonel Shoup, he feared the worst. The country was in the midst of the Cold War, and Soviet jets regularly flew uncomfortably close to Alaskan airspace. Was the country on the brink of a nuclear attack? Not hardly. On the other end was merely a voice asking if this was Santa Claus. At first, Colonel Shoup thought it was a very unfunny prank, but then the child began to cry. So, he played along, and ultimately asked to speak to the child’s mother who referred him to the ad.

Colonel Harry Shoulp from NORAD

Colonel Harry Shoulp – Wikimedia Commons

Soon, children were calling one after the other. NORAD decided to post a few employees on the phones and instructed them to act like Santa Claus. Over the course of the month, the jokes around the headquarters grew and grew. On Christmas Eve, Colonel Shoup came in to the operations center to deliver cookies to those working on the holiday. There, he found a drawing of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer flying over the North Pole on the map. At this point, the once-stern and stoic colonel had given into the jest. Now, he was about to up the ante. He called into a local radio station reporting an unidentified flying object on their radar that looked like a sleigh. Soon, radio stations were calling him back, asking for updates on Santa’s journey. It was then, on December 24, 1955 that a brand new Christmas tradition was born.

Santa Tracking Improvements through the Decades

Each year since, NORAD’s Santa tracking operation has grown. In the 1960’s, the organization would mail vinyl records to radio stations with pre-recorded updates on Santa’s journey. In the 1970’s, NORAD started making TV commercials. Finally, in the 1990’s, they officially moved Santa’s tracking to the web.

NORAD Santa Tracker

Photo Credit: DOD Live

In 1997, Analytical Graphics, Inc. helped build a map of Santa’s journey for NORAD to host online. Then, in 2012, they partnered with Cesium and Bing Maps. They created an all-new 3D web map to display Santa’s location around the globe. The magic of the map is in Cesium’s programming language, CZML, which illustrates time-dynamic 3D scenes. NORAD provides the latest information about Santa’s location. Then, Cesium’s code streams the data onto the tracking map, which uses Bing satellite imagery. This new technology allows children to see Santa’s current position in the air along with global terrain. Santa’s previously visited locations are also marked along with videos of Old St. Nick and further reading about the area. The experience is both immersive and interactive, all in real-time.

Within this experience, they are able to time Santa’s deliveries with infinite accuracy. At any moment you can log in, and track to the second how long he is spending in each place in order to make it around the world.

NORAD’s Holiday Impact Today

NORAD Command Desk

Photo Credit: NORAD

Today, there are a number of ways you – along with nearly nine million other people from more than 200 countries – can track Santa’s real-time progress. You can download the program’s official app, follow them on social media, or visit their official website. Plus, as of 2017, you can ask Alexa for Santa’s location using an Amazon Echo. And, if you were wondering, children can still call NORAD to speak directly to Santa, or email him as well. Each year, hundreds of volunteers join alongside NORAD employees to field tens of thousands of calls.

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Caitlyn is the founder of Grey Ghost, a New York City-based boutique content marketing agency with a passion for artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups. She believes in quality over quantity, creative thinking, and, above all, using language as powerful tool to build lasting connections.

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