On November 30, 1955, a phone rang on Col. Harry Shoup’s desk at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). CONAD was tasked with watching for a Soviet attack by air and alerting Strategic Air Command. In the midst of the Cold War, a phone call to Colonel Shoup’s desk could have brought critical news for national security.
Col. Harry Shoup was at his office in December when his red phone rang. It was one of two phones on his desk — the one reserved for national emergencies.
“Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” said Terri Van Keuren, one of Col. Shoup’s three children who told the tale
Col. Shoup answered the call. A small voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?” said Pamela Farrell, another of Col. Shoup’s daughters.
A straight-laced man, Col. Shoup was initially gruff. “He was annoyed,” Van Keuren said, because he assumed it was a joke.
“There may be a guy called Santa Claus, at the North Pole, but he’s not the one I worry about coming from that direction,” was the Colonel’s reply.
“And so now the little voice was crying,” she said.
Col. Shoup rose to the occasion. He “ho-ho-ho’ed and asked if [the caller] had been a good boy,” Farrell said. The child’s mother got on the line and told the colonel about the ad the child had seen. Children began calling one after another, so the colonel assigned a couple of airmen to the line to pose as Santa.
They then began giving their young callers updates on Santa’s whereabouts. One day, Col. Shoup called a local radio station to report an “unidentified flying object… it looks like a sleigh!”
Why call CONAD to reach Santa? It all started with a misdial. That year, Sears ran an ad where Santa invited young people to “Call me direct on my telephone.” However, one caller didn’t heed the ad’s warning to “be sure and dial the correct number,” and instead reached Colonel Shoup—sparking a chain of events that would become a Christmas tradition.
“The phone number for Sears’ Santa was just a few number different than Colonel Shoup’s desk at CONAD, making the fateful misdial possible.”
The week of Christmas, Col. Shoup’s staff added Santa and his sleigh to the plexiglass map CONAD used to track unidentified aircraft. The joke sparked an idea and CONAD told press they “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.”
These responses were much less “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and much more “Yes, Virginia, there is a Cold War.” but one must take into account what was happening in the world at the time. The message that CONAD was there to protect Santa against threats, aligned with a larger common current theme focusing on the importance of air defense.
The Cold War wasn’t the first time the U.S. military reported seeing Santa. During World War II, General Eisenhower issued a press release confirming “a new North Pole Command has been formed … Santa Claus is directing operations … He has under his command a small army of gnomes,” although the censored version cut out the location of Santa’s headquarters. In 1948, the Air Force reported one of their early warning radars had detected “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet, heading 180 degrees.
CONAD, however, would soon set itself apart from these earlier messages of Santa Claus levity. In 1956, one year after Colonel Shoup spoke with the young caller, , the Associated Press and United Press International called to ask if Col. Shoup’s team planned to track Santa again, and CONAD confirmed they did. In 1958, the newly established North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) continued—and grew—the tradition.
In the 1960s, NORAD sent records to radio stations with updates on Santa’s path to play for their listeners. The 1970s brought with it Santa Tracker commercials. By 1997, Santa Tracker went digital—launching the now familiar website (Which has, of course, received some enhancements since then.)
How NORAD tracks Santa has also evolved over the years. Their website explains that they now use a combination of radar, satellites that “detect Rudolph’s bright red nose with no problem,” and jet fighters. “Canadian NORAD fighter pilots, flying the CF-18, take off out of Newfoundland and welcome Santa to North America,” explains NORAD, and in the United States, “American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15s, F16s or F-22s get the thrill of flying with Santa.”
Today, you can follow NORAD’s Santa updates online, over social media, via email, live chat—and of course, how it all started, by calling NORAD. Operators are available on Christmas Eve until midnight—probably because they need to be in bed before Santa comes.