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This Month in History: The history of tracking Santa on Christmas Eve

December 23, 2013
By TIM KNOX , Pine Island Eagle

Have you ever wondered how the U.S. Air Force came about the task of tracking Santa's journey as he delivers presents to children around the world? It began on Christmas Eve in 1955 when Col. Harry Shoup received a call on one of the top secret phone lines at his office in Colorado Springs, Colo. Col. Shoup was director of operations at CONAD, in Colorado, which was the Continental Air Defense Command. This military agency evolved during the Cold War to detect and intercept Soviet bombers attacking North America via the North Pole. The colonel answered the phone expecting the call to be from the Pentagon or a four-star general. Instead he heard a little girls voice asking "Are you really Santa Claus?"

The child was calling from Colorado Springs. That day the city newspaper ran an advertisement from the local Sears Roebuck & Co. The Sears ad informed children they could call a special phone number and talk to Santa Claus to see where he was on his trip around the world. However, the number in the ad was off by one digit and instead of calling Santa, the little girl called CONAD. Rather than inform his young caller she had reached a wrong number and hurt her feelings, the colonel decided to play along.

When children continued to call CONAD throughout the day, Col. Shoup advised his staff to provide the callers with a "current location" for Santa Claus. This was so popular with families that CONAD repeated it the following Christmas Eve nationwide. When the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) replaced CONAD in 1958, it continued the tradition. NORAD is a joint operation between the United States and Canada charged with the missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America.

From the 1950s to 1996, the NORAD Tracks Santa program utilized telephone hotlines, newspapers, radio and television. From 1997 to the present the NORAD Santa Tracker also utilized a web site, which even tallies the number of presents he has delivered.

There are many ways to track Santa this Christmas Eve. You can call 1-877-HI-NORAD. The Santa Tracker web site is You can email Santa at Or download the Santa Tracking App for your smartphone. There are also Santa location updates on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you happen to be driving this Christmas Eve, OnStar equipped vehicles can advise you of Santa's whereabouts (and you thought OnStar was only for opening your doors after you locked your keys in the car).

NORAD carries out its annual Santa tracking operation with the assistance of many corporate partners and volunteers. There are more than 1,000 volunteers that answer calls and emails, and update the social media sites. Last year these volunteers answered more than 114,000 phone calls and received over 9,000 emails from more than two hundred countries from around the world.

I, for one, will be tracking Santa this Christmas Eve. However, I will not be hearing, "This is Onstar, how may I help you?"


For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.

The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.

Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.



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