The North American Aerospace Defense Command is serious business. A joint effort between Canada and the United States, NORAD's responsibilities include identifying potential nuclear strikes, launching strategic air defense, and tracking Santa Claus as he makes his Christmas journey on his sleigh.
That last bit all started when Sears Roebuck ran an ad in a Colorado Springs-area paper in 1955. It listed a number where children could call Santa direct, and on the other end would be a recording of someone doing their best Kris Kringle, or perhaps a phone bank of actors hired to talk like Santa. It's hard to find out exactly what kinds of things the "Santa Hotline" offered back then because Sears printed the wrong number. ME 2-6681 didn't connect to Santa, but rather to the CONAD (the U.S.-only predecessor of NORAD) Commander-in-Chief's operations line. In the middle of the Cold War, this defense installation's phone was inundated with little kids asking to speak to Santa.
At the time, Colonel Harry Shoup was CONAD's head of operations, and he was armed with a sense of whimsy. According to Airman Magazine, that first call went like this:
On Dec. 3, 1955...the "red" phone rang alarmingly early. The colonel answered it, "Yes Sir," and heard a kid firing off his Christmas list. The intense colonel was not in the mood to play games. So he glared at the seven lieutenant colonels working for him. "Boy! If any of them are smiling, I'm going to nail 'em,'" he remembers thinking. "I was a known hard-ass. I took our mission seriously. Our annual phone bill was $22 million." The colonel ended his chat with the boy. "'May I speak to your mommy?' he asked. "Yes, but will you bring her a new refrigerator?" the lad replied. "Yeah," the colonel said.
From that moment forward, Col. Shoup "had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole." In the years that followed, CONAD (and, starting in 1958, NORAD) servicemen, employees, and their friends and family volunteered to answer phones to let children know where Santa was heading.
For years, NORAD's Santa Tracking hotline was a local Colorado Springs endeavor with little national attention. In 1972, concerned Congressman Jonathan B. Bingham stumbled upon a secret Pentagon budget and brought it to the attention of the press. He argued that these murky, hidden funds went towards "military propagandizing,” and that “nests of public information activities...continue to be hidden from the Congress."
Among this "propaganda" uncovered by Congressman Bingham was a short film, "NORAD Tracks Santa." When asked about it by the New York Times, the Government Accountability Office said the movie “portrays Santa Claus’s trip from the North Pole to homes of children in the United States and Canada as tracked by the men and equipment of the North American Air Defense Command.” The film was a PR ploy, one the government secretly paid $2,879 for.
Concerted efforts like this were made to in order to get press out about NORAD's Santa Tracker. None were more successful than the Santa Tracker website, launched in 1997. It had 80 million hits the following year, which was an insane number for 1998, and there's now a Twitter account, YouTube hub, and Facebook page. This 59-year tradition shows no sign of slowing down. Just keep making good with the presents, Santa, and NORAD will let you cruise through all the restricted airspace you want.