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A Yuletide Odyssey: NORAD’s Santa Tracking Tradition

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Washington D.C.: In the winter of 1948, a peculiar transmission echoed through the United States Air Force’s early warning radar net—a festive anomaly at 14,000 feet, powered by eight reindeer, cruising southward.

The tale, a fleeting whisper in the corridors of military history, marked the prologue to an extraordinary tradition—the tracking of none other than Santa Claus himself by the United States Armed Forces.

Fast forward to the enchanting eve of Christmas 1955, a precursor to the formal establishment of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). A misprinted Sears advertisement sparked an unintentional rendezvous with destiny, urging children to dial a Santa hotline. With one digit astray, the call purportedly reached the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center in Colorado Springs. Colonel Harry Shoup, duty crew commander, embraced the spirit of the season, weaving tales of Santa’s whereabouts for eager children. A delightful mishap had given birth to a holiday tradition steeped in whimsy.

As the years have passed by, the narrative has morphed, acquiring layers of enchantment and a touch of the fantastical. What commenced as a lone misdialed call soon swelled into a cascade of calls on Christmas Eve, with Colonel Shoup’s playful banter amplifying the festive spirit. The saga has expanded to include fanciful elements like a “red telephone” hotline—a charming embellishment to the evolving story.

Despite initial hesitation to replay the escapade in 1956, media anticipation fueled the continuity of this newfound tradition. By 1958, the North America Air Defense Command (NORAD) officially assumed responsibility from CONAD, injecting an air of grandeur into the reporting. Elaborate updates and imaginative details, such as a purported emergency landing on the ice of Hudson Bay in 1960, became integral to the enchanting narrative.

Today, NORAD openly shares a hotline for the public to dial, seeking eagerly awaited updates on Santa’s mythical journey. What began as a lighthearted misstep has blossomed into a cherished annual rite, cocooning the globe in the enchantment of Santa’s yuletide odyssey. However, the sotto voce of conspiracy theories and the ever-evolving tales encircling this festive NORAD tradition merely deepen its mystique, cementing it as a cultural touchstone—a testament to the enduring magic of Christmas.

In a recent announcement, Pentagon Press Secretary Major General Patrick Ryder said: “On Christmas Eve NORAD has one additional special mission; tracking Santa as he makes his way across the globe. This is NORAD’s 68th year conducting this important mission.”

Last year, the Santa Tracker hotline was dialled from across the United States by 73,000 families.

This year’s annual holiday celebration will take on a visual blend of military background and holiday cheer as the NTS Call Center takes up residence in Hangar 123, a structure that portends to a military operation more becoming of two of NORAD’s missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control.

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