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It started as a complete accident.
The mission of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is to detect any potential airborne threats that enter the airspace of the United States and Canada. NORAD’s commander is a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy. Its deputy commander is three-star general in the Canadian Army. For years, its command center was located inside of a nuclear bomb-proof bunker inside of the Cheyenne Mountain military base in Colorado.
So why does NORAD every year track the progress of Santa Claus as he makes he yearly present delivery trek around the globe? Why does NORAD operate a phone line where kids can call in and inquire about Santa’s location? Why does the agency operate a website as well as profiles on Facebook and Twitter dedicated to showing Santa’s progress?
The answer goes to a single typo in a newspaper ad almost six decades ago.
“‘There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.'”
In 1955, during the height of the Cold War, there was a red phone sitting on a desk at NORAD (then called the Continental Air Defense Command) headquarters near Colorado Springs. The red phone was reserved for only top-level communications between Col. Harry Shoup and top Pentagon brass.
One December day, the phone rang and, when Shoup picked up, it was a child’s voice on the other end asking to speak to Santa Claus.
As Shoup’s children—Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup, and Pam Farrell—told NPR, their father wasn’t amused and let the caller know, which quick elicited tears.
“And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” Van Keuren recounted. “So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, ‘May I talk to your mother?’ And the mother got on and said, ‘You haven’t seen the paper yet? There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’ Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus.”
A local newspaper had run an advertisement for the Sears department store that featured a number that kids could call to talk to Santa. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time, day or night, or come in and visit me at Sears Toyland – SANTA CLAUS,” the ad read. Of course, the number listed was incorrect.
As the calls poured in from kids wanting to talk to Santa, Shoup played along, asking the children who called if they had been good that year.
While the newspaper misprint is the widely told story, verified by BS-detector Snopes in 2008, an article about the incident that appeared that year in the Pasadena Independent indicated that the initial phone call was the result of a youngster accidentally mixing up the numbers rather than an error in the Sears ad.
Nevertheless, the episode quickly turned into a joke at NORAD. That year, Shoup called a local radio station to give regular reports of Santa’s progress across the globe since tracking objects flying across the sky is what NORAD did anyway.
Deciding to make it a tradition, NORAD eventually set up a dedicated phone number that kids could call to track Santa separate from the red phone (1-877 HI-NORAD, or 1-877-446-6723). It was probably for the best to keep that red phone line open for theoretical Russian nuclear attacks.
Or, at least, that was the impression NORAD wanted to give the public.
A recent post on Gizmodo explains that NORAD’s expansion into the Santa tracking business coincided with a push by the department to convince the American public about the need for perpetually standing on guard against the threat of Soviet attack.
The Gizmodo post notes that mid-1950s films, like Strategic Air Command and 24 Hour Alert, which were made in partnership with the U.S. military, worked to remind viewers for the need for eternal vigilance. The latter was actually based on Shoup’s military experiences.
An Associated Press story published at the time noted that, not only was the government monitoring Santa, but it was also protecting him “against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.”
In other words, the wrong-number tale may have simply been a marketing stunt, the details of which have splintered over time, like a decades-long game of telephone.
Update: The story has been updated with additional context about NORAD’s use of the Santa tracker for PR and about discrepancies over the misprint.
Photo by Nemo/pixabay
Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.