NORAD Santa Tracker: 63-year-old tradition started with wrong number

The ad that started it all.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - It was the Cold War. U.S. officials feared an attack by Russia. Their Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) had a special phone line set up in case of an imminent attack.

On Christmas Eve 1955, the phone rang.

U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup feared the worst. The call was coming in on a top-secret line, which could only mean one thing.

Except this time, it was a "red" concern of a different sort.

"Is this Santa Claus?" a tiny voice asked.

"Dad's pretty annoyed," Shoup's daughter Terri Van Keuren recalled in 2009. "He barks into the phone, demanding to know who's calling.

"The little voice is now crying, 'Is this one of Santa's elves, then?'"

How had the child gotten a highly-classified number? From a Sears ad that had run that very day with a big picture of Santa Claus, urging children to call him.

"Hey, Kiddies? Call me direct...just dial ME 2-6681. Kiddies be sure and dial the correct number. Call me on my personal phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night, or come in and visit me at Sears Toyland." -Santa Claus (From the 1955 ad)

The ad reminded children to dial the correct number -- but it was actually Sears that had the number wrong. The phone number advertised was off by a single digit, so instead of calling Santa, children were actually calling the Continental Air Defense Command.

Van Keuren said that the phones began ringing off the hook, and her dad decided to just roll with it. He grabbed a nearby airman and told him to answer the calls as Santa Claus.

It didn't stop there: Shoup decided that it would be fun to give the children calling in information on Santa's trip around the world. And just like that -- thanks to a wrong number and a kindly Air Force colonel -- a now 63-years-and-counting tradition was born.

CONAD became NORAD in 1958, and now NORAD every year puts hundreds of volunteers behind phones to answer calls from children around the world. Questions fielded by volunteers include pressing matters such as: "How fast can Santa travel?" and "What time do kids need to be in bed?"

Since 1955, the Santa Tracking operation has become infinitely more high-tech. According to Avaya Government Solutions, experts with NORAD "carefully monitor [Santa's] travels and ensure his safety using data gathered from radar, satellites, jet pilots and even high-tech Santa Cams positioned in strategic locations worldwide.

"As a result, curious children of all ages -- naughty or nice -- can get an insider’s view of his progress as he streaks through the night sky."

In 2016, the NORAD Tracks Santa team received 154,192 calls in 23 hours -- a record. That comes out to one call every 1.8 seconds.

If children want to call "Santa," they can call 1-877-HI-NORAD. They can follow Santa's progress around the world through social media or the official NORAD Santa Tracking website:

NORAD Tracks Santa official website
NORAD Tracks Santa Facebook
NORAD Tracks Santa Twitter
NORAD Tracks Santa YouTube

Article originally published Dec. 24, 2014