Once upon a time, Santa could visit homes on Christmas Eve without being seen or heard. But Santa is a celebrity with a very loyal fan club, and these days his every move is newsworthy.
So, as it has done every year for the past 55 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, takes a bit of effort away from those other things it does, like, for instance, watching for incoming missiles, in order to keep tabs on the old man's flight across the continent.
Of course, this being the second decade of the 21st century, these days the effort is documented and continually updated on the NoradSanta.org site, as well as on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Google maps for mobile. Users enter @noradsanta into the various search engines to get started. NORAD also offers a Santa mobile app for counting down the days until his takeoff, as well as an Elf Toss game in case you need some virtual exercise.
On midnight ET on Christmas Eve, the Web site will carry a feed of Santa doing his pre-flight prep. Starting at 6 a.m. ET, a live phone operator will give out the old guy's whereabouts via a toll-free number, (877) Hi-NORAD, that's (877) 446-6723, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
In 2010, the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center in Colorado Springs handled more than 80,000 calls. There will also be various Santa cams that will stream video as the gifting tour begins.
The Canadian NORAD Region has selected four CF-18 fighter pilots who will act as escorts to the bearded one as he travels across Canadian airspace. No word yet on whether he will be escorted by jets over the U.S. Of course, his progress will also be reported live on Christmas Eve by a number of local television weathercasters.
Several technology companies are helping NORAD do its duty. Verizon, for instance, will provide the hotline, as well as 4G LTE wireless connectivity for 1200 Santa-tracking volunteers at the Operations Center.
Misprinted Phone Number
A Colorado-based provider of managed IT services, TW Telecom, said that it's assisting NORAD with local communications services at the Operations Center. Global communications provider Avaya, which is handling voice communications for the effort, said that this was one of those military missions when "failure is not an option."
Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., NORAD Commander, noted that his agency will still be protecting the skies of the North America during this effort, but that it assumed the added responsibility of making "sure that Santa is able to complete his mission safely."
The origins of the tradition trace back to the Cold War era. In 1955, a Sears Roebuck ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper encouraged children to call Santa, but the wrong phone number was printed. Instead of being a direct line to the Sears Santa, the mistaken number was for the operations hotline for the CONAD commander-in-chief. CONAD became NORAD in 1958.
Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the time, picked up the phone. "I will never forget it," Shoup later said in an interview. "The Red Phone rang, and it was either the Pentagon calling or the four-star general." Instead, he recalled, he heard a child on the other end ask if he was really Santa Claus.
The colonel decided that the whereabouts of Santa's airborne vehicle, like the coordinates of Soviet aircraft, were within his domain. He instructed his staff to check the radar screens for any blips indicating a sleigh with reindeer attached. to no one's alarm or surprise, the staff then began to relay updates on the bearded one's location, which in turn were relayed to children who called in.
Shoup, who became known as the Santa colonel, died in 2009, but the use of the agency's resources to track a flying vehicle dropping presents instead of bombs has become a fixture for the holiday.