Hello, is this Santa? : NORAD’s Xmas Eve Chores

Tis the season, and XBrad has been writing a lot about NORAD lately, so I figure this is a good segue.  Every year around this time NORAD takes on a “special task” supplying updates about the progress of Santa Claus across the North American airspace on his Christmas stops for all the good little boys and girls.  Certainly good public relations, and it fits the NORAD mission protecting the airspace right into the Santa lore – almost seamlessly.

For many years I’ve thought it more an apocryphal tale about how NORAD got stuck involved with this “special task.”   According to the story, this advert ran in a Colorado Springs newspaper around Christmas in 1955:

English: Sears and Roebuck Ad that led to NORA...

Typical promotion of the time period.  Only trouble was that the phone number, ME 2-6681, was not ringing the “Santa Desk” at Sears.  Instead it was ringing the watch desk at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), the predecessor of NORAD.  So in some super-uber-Top-Secret war room, Colonel Henry Shoup picks up the “red phone” with an official professional military greeting.  In response, Shoup hears “Are you really Santa?”

Shoup, at first thinking this was a prank call, asked the child to repeat the question.   Of course, by then the child was breaking into tears on the other end of the line.  Shoup had the presence of mind to figure out the newspaper error and start a cover story.  You see… CONAD was actually drafted to help Santa along that Christmas Eve in order to ensure he got to all destinations without interference from other air traffic (or that big Russian Bear!).   Shoup and his staff fielded phone calls from anxious kids and gave updates on Santa’s progress.

Ah…. thus started a tradition….

The historian in me wants to see duty logs, staff reports, and the full investigation file explaining how some highly sensitive phone number ended up in a newspaper advertizement!  But that would be “grinchy”….  And to quell any doubts, the story appears on NORAD’s official web site.  So it must be legit right?

Government Book Talk has a good writeup on the story also.  (Oh, and I am expecting a copy of “Guarding What You Value Most: North American Aerospace Defense Command Celebrating 50 Years” under the tree this year… not naming any names….just dropping loud hints!)

The task of tracking and reporting on Santa is now a volunteer effort – fielding a few phone calls still but more so emails and other electronic messages.  The effort includes “Santa Cams” and a full dose of social media.   As the official NORAD Santa website proudly proclaims, this year you can track Santa on Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, smart phone…..all thanks to that other Cold War derived technology – the internet.

So from those threatened skies of the Cold War came an update to the ages old Christmas Story, all working within the framework of the continental air defense system!