Dec 11, 2020 |LIFE | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Xixi Qin

On Nov. 31, 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, the atmosphere in the Continental Air Defense operations center in Colorado Springs was tense. CONAD (1954-1975) was a military organization that provided aerospace warning and protection for Northern America against air attacks.

When the phone rang at the CONAD center, the last thing U.S. Air Force Colonel Henry Shoup expected was to speak to a curious young child who thought she had dialed Santa Claus at the North Pole.

The Gazette, a Colorado Springs newspaper, had printed a phone number where children could speak to Santa Claus — but allegedly, an error in printing led to the sensitive CONAD number being listed instead.

After some initial confusion and suspicion that someone was pulling an inappropriate prank, Colonel Shoup claimed that he eventually realized it was an honest misdial and played the part of Santa Claus for the child. After they had a conversation, the Colonel asked the child to put her mother on the phone, and they realized that the newspaper must have printed the wrong number, or the child had misdialed a digit.

Some people speculate that the Colonel actually responded to the child curtly and that he exaggerated how eager he was to play the role of Santa Claus later on to make himself appear friendlier.

Either way, Colonel Shoup was soon inspired to take the Christmas spirit further — after all, an organization dedicated to scanning the skies for aerospace attacks could naturally use this same technology to track Santa’s sleigh in transit. CONAD began to work with radio stations and newspapers in Colorado Springs to broadcast Santa’s location.

On Christmas Eve that same year, CONAD released a statement in newspapers: “Santa Claus Friday was assured safe passage into the U.S. by the Continental Air Defense Command combat operations center here which began plotting his journey from the North Pole early this morning. NAD, Army, Navy, and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.” This was an allusion to the atheist Soviet Union.

Soon, more radio stations around the country began to catch onto the movement. In 1958, the tradition was picked up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, an aerospace protection organization of the U.S. and Canada. Information about Santa’s whereabouts began to appear on television.

Today, there is a NORAD Tracks Santa website with an interactive map detailing Santa’s journey. NORAD Tracks Santa also has a social media presence and is available via apps; additionally, on Christmas Eve, Santa’s location can be relayed by Amazon’s Alexa.

In addition to the website, children can call 1-877-Hi-NORAD on Christmas Eve to be connected to a volunteer who will inform them of Santa’s current location. In 2014, over 1,200 volunteers answered over 100,000 phone calls.

Under normal circumstances, the volunteers take shifts throughout Christmas Eve day and night to answer calls at the Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be fewer volunteers. While some children calling may be able speak to a volunteer on the phone, others will be informed of Santa’s location with a recorded message.

The holidays may look different this year — but children will still be able to stay updated on Santa’s location through the NORAD Tracks Santa website. Maybe they will even be able to see Santa’s sleigh up in the sky, with his beard billowing from under his mask.

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