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Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

Air defense command monitoring a flying sleigh

US and Canadian Air Force officials remain on high alert today, tracking the movements of an airborne Nordic sleigh propelled by 8 reindeer. Every December 1, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) reactivates a specialized surveillance unit in anticipation of the renowned traveler’s expected appearance, reporting his progress to millions of children around the world throughout the day on December 24.

NORAD is a joint military command between the United States and Canada that closely monitors virtually everything that flies over North America or approaches our shores by sea. Once ensconced in a bunker deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, the agency now resides at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. NORAD gained some unwanted attention during the Chinese spy balloon incident last January but has been unerringly faithful to its mission of tracking Santa since the height of the Cold War. So how did one of the world’s most advanced military installations take on the mission of tracking St. Nick?

An advertising campaign, a fortuitous accident, and a quick-thinking young Air Force officer came together to create a charming and enduring tradition.

On November 30, 1955, the Sears store in Colorado Springs published a newspaper ad inviting children to call and speak with Santa Claus. “Hey kiddies! Call me direct on my telephone. Just dial ME 2-6681.” The invitation also included a reminder to “be sure and dial the correct number”. Good advice, except that the number printed in the ad was not the North Pole, but due to a 1-digit error was actually the hot line for the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), the predecessor of NORAD.

Anticipating a hearty greeting from the jolly old elf, the first young caller instead reached Colonel Harry Shoup, the duty officer assigned to the emergency line. Shoup, prepared for a call from the President or a senior military commander raising an alert, was instead confronted with what he might at first have thought to be a prank. America was embroiled in the Cold War and a call on the hot line could signal a nuclear attack. Instead, the timid voice on the line asked: “Are you really Santa Claus?”

At first, Shoup was not amused. He soon realized, however, what had happened, and as a father of four himself he decided to play along. He listened to the child’s Christmas wish list before asking to speak with the boy’s mother, who explained how the young caller had managed to dial the red phone.

Embracing a welcome respite from the usual tension in the command center, he assigned several other airmen to take the incoming calls. During the week of Christmas, Colonel Shoup discovered that one of his airmen had pasted an image of Santa’s sleigh on the 3-story Plexiglas wall map used for tracking unidentified aircraft. Shoup called a local radio station to report an unidentified flying object that “looks like a sleigh”, and CONAD issued a press release to newspapers informing children that a big red sleigh was approaching from the North Pole.

The next year, in 1956, the Associated Press and United Press International contacted the command to ask if they planned to track Santa again, which CONAD quickly confirmed. By the time NORAD was formed in 1958 to include Canadian air defense assets, the charming holiday tradition was well established and eagerly anticipated.

While these Air Force officers embraced this unexpected opportunity, it was not the first “official” report of a Santa sighting. According to The Atlantic magazine, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower issued a wartime press release announcing that “a new North Pole Command has been formed … Santa Claus is directing operations … He has under his command a small army of gnomes”. And in 1948, an Air Force statement confirmed detection of “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet, heading 180 degrees.”

That tradition continues thanks to the generosity of numerous corporate sponsors and over 1,100 volunteers from US and Canadian military and civilian defense organizations and 54 corporate contributors. No Virginia, it’s not costing the taxpayers.

Kids of all ages can visit the official NORAD website at NoradSanta.org or download the apps for iPhone or Android to learn more about Santa’s annual trek. The website is available in 9 different languages and features a collection of games, videos, and family activities as well as technical specifications for the sleigh and the impressive array of assets NORAD deploys to accomplish the mission. NORAD Tracks Santa is also on social media and can be accessed through Alexa and OnStar.

Updates are available all day on Christmas Eve as Santa makes his way around the globe.  And just as in 1955, children can still call NORAD operations staff member at 1-877-HI-NORAD any time after 6 AM on December 24.

In 2014, Colonel Shoup’s children recounted his story for the NPR StoryCorps project. They told of how he continued to carry a briefcase full of thank you letters with him well into his 90s. And while he was an accomplished military officer who served in defending America during the Cold War, they said his role in establishing the long-lived tradition of tracking Santa was the thing of which he was proudest.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

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