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Military & Veterans' Issues

NORAD Preps For A Scaled-Back Version Of Its 65 Year Tradition: Tracking Santa

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JEFF FITZMORRIS / U.S. AIR FORCE
Air Force personnel and civilian volunteers worked side-by-side on Christmas Eve 2019 to operate NORAD's Santa tracking hotline. In 2020, the operation will be scaled back because of the pandemic.

Personnel from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs will try to fill in for the volunteers who normally field children's phone calls on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve can be rough. For kids eager for the next morning's toyfest, it's a day of frantic anticipation. For parents, wishing their kids would just settle down and let Saint Nick work his magic, bedtime can't come soon enough.

For 65 years, help has come from an usual corner: the American and Canadian servicemembers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

The Command is tasked with keeping the skies safe over the United States and Canada. But there is one annual incursion it doesn't just allow, but actively publicizes - the Christmas Eve flight of Saint Nicholas. Children around the world can call a hotline or go online to keep up as NORAD tracks Santa on his long journey.

Eight-year-old Ellie Radway of Oregon estimates she checks the tracker at least ten times through the course of Christmas Eve day.

"We see Santa Claus on the cell phone, flying through the air with all his reindeer, and last time we saw him go to New York," Ellie explained, before breaking into an excited chorus of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

The annual mission - NORAD Tracks Santa - is so well known it rather overshadows the work the Command does the other 364 days of the year.

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DAVID BEDARD / U.S. AIR FORCE
According to the Air Force, Col. Harry Shoup, the operations officer at NORAD in 1955, answered a child's wrong-number call and began the tradition of NORAD tracking Santa.

"There are some conversations I've had that people are surprised to find out that NORAD is an actual military organization," said Major Cameron Hillier with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

According to NORAD's official history, it got into the Santa tracking business quite by accident. The whole thing started with a Sears ad in the Colorado Springs newspaper that included a phone number for children to talk to Santa. But some kids accidentally dialed the operations center for NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command.

"As you can imagine, for anyone who is in the operations center that night in 1955, getting children's phone calls to discuss wish-lists was not exactly top of mind," Hillier said. "They were looking more for the Soviet bomber threat coming over the top and dropping gravity nuclear bombs."

Of course, lots of commanding officers would have just dashed all those children's hopes. But the man on duty that night, Colonel Harry Shoup, didn't. Instead, he told his crew to take the calls and reassure the children that Santa would be coming.

These days, kids can follow Santa all sorts of ways - online, through an app; they can even ask Alexa. But the telephone hotline remains the heart of the operation.
"A lot of memories are built up in each and every one of those phone calls," said Hillier.

In a normal year, NORAD has about 1500 people answering phones, a mix of service members, their families, and volunteers. Most of those come from Colorado Springs, but a few drive in from other states to be part of the tradition.

This, of course, is not a normal year. And like other military installations, Peterson Air Force Base, which houses NORAD, has become a bubble during the pandemic, with off-base visitors strictly limited. So this year, there will be a lot fewer people answering the phones, just base personnel and their families.

For kids who don't get through to a live person, a recording will let them know where Santa is. And that's important for helping some families keep their traditions on track.

In Minneapolis, the Agustin family always checks the tracker right before bedtime.

"We'll pull it up on the TV or up on the phones, and we'll see where Santa is, run and get our pajamas and we'll hop up in bed." 11-year-old Kate explained.

Major Hillier said encouraging kids to get to bed before Santa arrives is one reason a lot of families call in. He'll be among those on base who will take a shift on the phones this Christmas Eve. Hilliard enjoys the enthusiasm and sense of wonder in the kids who call in, but said for his own children, it's a different story.

"My wife mentioned, 'you know Dad's working with Santa this year, so he's going to track Santa.' They couldn't care less," he laughed.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.