NORAD Santa tracker: America’s bizarre Cold War tradition

Justin Moyer (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Warning: This post includes revelations about the true nature of St. Nick. Parents of young children, be advised.

On Christmas Eve, the hearts of children around the world will fill with hope and joy as they await the arrival of Santa Claus. Even more than Jesus Christ for some, the jolly man in the red suit bearing gifts will serve as a symbol of goodwill toward men, bringing the spirit of Christmas — and commercial swag — to a war-weary world.

Oh: To add to the holiday cheer, St. Nick’s progress will be tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a military program of Cold War vintage designed to prevent global nuclear annihilation.

Every few years, the origins of NORAD’s curious Santa-tracking program are re-explored in American media. As the story goes, it was all the result of a typo: In 1955, the phone number of Continental Air Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. — later NORAD — mistakenly ended up in a Sears ad encouraging children to call Santa, so children called the military installation instead.

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National Public Radio had a piece on this creation myth last week worth quoting at length. NPR talked to Terri Van Keuren, Pam Farrell and Rick Shoup. Their father, Col. Harry Shoup, worked at the Continental Air Command.


Terri remembers her dad had two phones on his desk, including a red one. “Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” she says.

“This was the ’50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States,” Rick says.

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The red phone rang one day in December 1955, and Shoup answered it, Pam says. “And then there was a small voice that just asked, ‘Is this Santa Claus?’ “

His children remember Shoup as straight-laced and disciplined, and he was annoyed and upset by the call and thought it was a joke — but then, Terri says, the little voice started crying.

“And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” her sister says. “So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, ‘May I talk to your mother?’ And the mother got on and said, ‘You haven’t seen the paper yet? There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’ Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus.”


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A much-loved tradition was born: a tradition that weaves together the birth of Christ, holiday shopping and mutually assured destruction.

But a few things seem not-quite-right about NORAD tracking Santa — and the creation story. Among them:

— Why was a man tasked with defending the entire continent of North America playing Santa Claus?

Matt Novak of Paleofuture, in an exhaustive post, called NORAD’s Santa tracker “one of the most successful military PR campaigns of the last century.” He linked it to a spate of anti-Soviet films released in 1955.

“The mistaken call’s real value was in planting the seed of a Santa idea,” Novak wrote. “Who better than Ol’ Saint Nick to join the fight against the godless commies in the Soviet Union? The phone call happened on November 30, 1955, but that coming Christmas Eve, the military embraced this idea of Santa being protected by American forces. Santa was enlisted as a character that would help fight the good fight against non-believers.”

— Is Santa-tracking waste, fraud and abuse?

NORAD Santa trackers say they “spend very few tax dollars.” That’s because the military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned against teams up every Christmas Eve to get the job done. In 2010, Santa-tracking sponsors included Air Canada, Unified TelData, Google, Booz Allen Hamilton, Verizon and Time Warner. And now that Google has its own Santa tracker, it’s actually competing with the U.S. military.

— Does bringing NORAD and Santa together militarize St. Nick?

NORAD tracks threats. Santa is not one — so why all the F-18s and weapons technology?

“Santa belongs to all the children of the world,” the Monitor of McAllen, Texas, editorialized last year. “We fail to understand how a kindly, elderly gentleman with nine magic reindeer bearing toys and gifts for the youth of our world poses a threat to anybody.”

— Conflating a religious holiday with NORAD seems constitutionally dubious.

Each December, the country goes to war over nativity displays in public places. Okay — what about a St. Nick pageant put on by the military? Seems like the ACLU should have a position on this, though it has yet to weigh in. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has ruled that even a manger scene serves a “legitimate secular purpose.”

— Santa is not real.

Amid the hubbub surrounding NORAD’s Santa tracker — the hundreds of volunteers, the maps, the CGI, the feel-good stories — it’s easy to forget that Santa is only loosely based on the historical figure St. Nicholas, who died in the fourth century. In sum: no reindeer, no elves, no sleigh, no presents, making NORAD’s mighty efforts the equivalent of a carnival trick.

— The Santa trackers are sticking to their story.

“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,” said Joyce Frankovis, NORAD’s public relations officer, in 2009.