Every December, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) turns its attention to an unusual target: Santa. Phones ring as children call to ask for his whereabouts on Christmas Eve. It’s part of a decades-old tradition rooted in both holiday cheer and a Cold War publicity stunt.

The legend of how NORAD began monitoring Saint Nick’s whereabouts is repeated each year. It’s a heartwarming tale—though the popular version isn’t quite true.

The Story of How NORAD Began Tracking Santa

The tale about NORAD Tracks Santa’s origins usually goes as follows: On December 24, 1955, the red telephone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, began ringing.

The red phone meant it was either the Pentagon or CONAD commander in chief General Earle Partridge on the other end, and their reason for calling would probably not be pleasant. U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup, director of operations at the center, rushed over to the phone and grabbed it.

“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup,” he answered. He received nothing but silence in response. “Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said. Silence again. “Sir? Can you read me alright?”

Finally, a soft voice on the other end. “Are you really Santa Claus?” a little girl asked.

Shoup was stunned for a second. This must be a joke, he thought. He looked around the room, expecting to see his men laughing at their prank, but found stony, serious faces all around.

He realized that there was “some screwup on the phones,” and decided to play along. “Yes, I am,” he answered. “Have you been a good little girl?"

The girl explained to Shoup that she would leave some food out for both Santa and his reindeer and then recited her Christmas list to him. Shoup thanked her for her hospitality, noting that Santa had a lot of traveling to do. How did he get to all those houses in one night, anyway, she asked.

Apparently, that was classified intelligence in Shoup’s mind. “That’s the magic of Christmas,” he said. If anyone asks her about that, he said, she should tell them to stop asking so many questions or Santa would put them on the naughty list.

“That red phone, boy,” Shoup later recalled. “That’s either the old man—the four star [General Partridge]—or the Pentagon. I was all shook up.”

The red phone kept ringing throughout the night. Not because of Soviet nukes or fighter planes heading toward U.S. soil, but because of a typo. That day, Shoup would later learn, a local newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad inviting kids to contact Santa.

“Hey Kiddies!” the ad read. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” The ad listed Santa’s direct line, but the number in the copy was off by a digit. Instead of connecting to the special line Sears set up with a Santa impersonator, kids wound up calling a secret air defense emergency number.

After a few more Santa-related calls, Shoup pulled a few airmen aside and gave them a special assignment. They would answer the phone and give callers Santa’s current location as they “tracked” him on their radar.

The Truth Behind NORAD's Santa Tracker

Harry Shoup passed away in 2009, remembered by his peers and the public as the “Santa Colonel” who gave a special gift to millions of kids. But perhaps he should be remembered for his PR savvy.

The true details of how NORAD began tracking Santa differ from the popular version of the tale. As Gizmodo reported in 2014, that fateful 1955 phone call didn’t occur on Christmas Eve—it actually happened on November 30. And that's not the only difference:

"Yes, Colonel Shoup got a call at CONAD that turned out to be a wrong number. But it wasn’t on Christmas Eve and there was no misprint in the newspaper, even though Snopes claims there was. It was just some kid who happened to get his numbers mixed up. And as for Colonel Shoup’s reaction? It was more like the kind of reaction you’d expect from a military officer in charge of ordering a strike that had the potential to end life on Earth as we know it. Which is to say, Shoup was not amused. And he wasn’t inundated with calls throughout the night that his men had to take."

According to a December 1, 1955 article from the Pasadena Independent, Shroup told the caller, "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."

As one of his daughter’s told NPR’s StoryCorps, it was a doodle that inspired Shoup to connect CONAD with Santa that year. After someone drew Saint Nick on his sleigh on the operation’s tracking board, the colonel spread the word that his group was tracking Santa—and working to keep him safe from any enemy attacks from those who “did not believe in Christmas.” It wasn't the first time the military had tapped into the Christmas spirit to help ease the public’s nerves; in 1948, the Air Force reported that it had found “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer” flying through the air.

CONAD’S Santa-tracking PR campaign continued the next year. As time went on, it—and Shoup’s retelling—grew more complex. The tale evolved, and that inconsequential November phone call became the famous Christmas Eve misdial recalled today.

Tracking Santa is still a yearly tradition, carried on by NORAD when it replaced CONAD in 1958. Every Christmas Eve, military service members staff phones and email accounts and the Santa Tracker Twitter account to keep kids up to date on Santa’s whereabouts.

A version of this story was originally published in 2012; it has been updated for 2021 to reflect additional information about the origins of NORAD Tracks Santa.