OH MY GOD: As NORAD Tracks Santa, critics track NORAD

The U.S. and Canadian military’s beloved Santa Tracker is facing something new this year — public criticism.

A children’s advocacy group says an animated video on the NORAD Tracks Santa website injects militarism into Christmas by showing fighter jets escorting Santa’s sleigh.

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It’s a rare swipe at the popular Christmas Eve program that gives second-by-second updates on Santa’s global whereabouts.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command defends the video as non-threatening and safe for kids.

The kerfuffle erupted two weeks ago when the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said the video brings violence and militarism to a beloved tradition. Blogs and Twitter lit up with volleys from both sides.

NORAD says it’s a “manufactured controversy.” Officials say they didn’t know about the video until reporters called.

  On a Lighter Note:

It was 1955, and Christmas was approaching, and Sears had a new idea for a yuletide gimmick. In local newspapers, the department store placed ads … on behalf of Santa himself.

“HEY KIDDIES!” the ad read, in a greeting that would seem creepy only in retrospect. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.”

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The ads then listed local numbers for area children to call to get some one-on-one Kris Kringle time. Which must have seemed, if you were a kid back then, pretty amazing. A direct line to St. Nick! Kids could, finally, bypass the middlemen that stood between between them and their gifts—the U.S. Postal Service, their parents—and go directly to the source. And, even more directly, to that source’s enormous bag of gifts. You can almost hear the Ralphie Parker voice-over.

Like many innovations, though, Sears’s frictionless Santa scheme found itself with an unforeseen problem. In the ad the company had placed in the local paper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Sears had listed Santa’s number as ME 2-6681. Which, according to Snopes, contained a typo: It was one digit off of the intended one. The number Sears had ended up printing and distributing to the city’s citizens? The one for, as it happened, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD)—the predecessor of NORAD—which, like Santa, specialized in aeronautics. And which, unlike Santa, was based in Colorado Springs.

Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, phone calls intended for St. Nick were being received on a top-secret NORAD line—a line that was usually reserved for crises (which, back then, pretty much meant “Russians attacking”). When the first call came in, Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty at CONAD, picked up the phone

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“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup.”

He got no reply—just silence

“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said.

More silence.

“Sir?” He was probably, at this point, trying not to panic. Silence on the crisis line. “Can you read me alright?”

Finally, the caller spoke up. It was … a little girl. She was hesitant. “Are you really Santa Claus?” she asked. 

At first, Shoup was, understandably, confused. He demanded to know who was calling, Terri Van Keuren, Shoup’s daughter, remembers. He was brusque. This didn’t make any sense.

“The little voice is now crying,” Van Keuren recalls.

The voice didn’t give up, though, tears notwithstanding. “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?” 

It must be a prank, Shoup thought. But, as he scanned the room, the “stony, serious faces” of his fellow men suggested otherwise. Then it occurred to him: Lines must have, literally, gotten crossed. There must have beensome screwup on the phones.” 

And then Shoup made a fateful, delightful decision: He decided to play along. 

“Yes, I am,” he answered the caller, be-elfing himself. “Have you been a good little girl?”

More calls began coming in. Shoup grabbed an airman who happened to be standing nearby and told him to answer the calls, too. The direction Shoup gave, as Van Keuren remembers the story? “Just pretend you’re Santa.'” 

Soon, the pretending evolved: The CONAD staff were providing the calling children not just with bowlful-of-jelly replies to their inquiries, but also with informational updates about Santa’s progress as he made his way around the world. As NORAD’s Santa site puts it: “A tradition was born.” 

The tradition has evolved, slightly, since then. In 1958, when NORAD was formed, it continued to offer a “Santa tracking” service to anyone who called in—especially on December 24. And the tracking continues. The people who answer the calls now include “countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel,” Van Keuren notes. As of 2009, those volunteers were handling more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than 200 countries and territories. In 2011, Michelle Obama answered calls on behalf of the North Pole NORAD.

The geolocation tradition, today, also continues with the help of social media and dedicated apps (iOS and Android!) and, in particular, the web—via noradsanta.org. Which currently locates Santa, with the help of some complex satellite triangulation maneuvers, just where you’d expect him to be: at the North Pole. And which is, as far as I can tell, typo-free.