The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has been tracking Santa’s sleigh and his nine reindeer since 1955, allowing children throughout the country to keep tabs on the man in red as he makes his Christmas deliveries each year.
But the NORAD tracker wouldn’t have ever existed were it not for a misprint in a Colorado Springs newspaper.
The children of Col. Harry Shoup, former commander of the Continental Air Defense Command, told the story of how the tracker came to be on NPR’s StoryCorps.
As his children recounted, Shoup manned a secret hotline that allowed him to be the first to know if there was an attack on the United States.
But on one night in 1955, he got a call not from a military general, but from a small child, inquiring after Santa Claus.
As his now grown children explained to NPR, Shoup soon realized it wasn’t a joke.
“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?'” Shoup’s daughter, Pam Farrell, told the radio outlet. “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.”
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Sure enough, an ad for Sears Roebuck & Co. mistakenly listed Shoup’s private number as the one for children to dial in order to speak to Santa personally.
“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.
After he hung up with his first young caller, Shoup was hit with a number of calls — so many, his kids said, he had to enlist the help of airmen to help field them all.
Over time, it became a joke at work, and on Christmas Eve that year, Shoup’s colleagues drew a reindeer and sleigh on the large glass board air defense command used to track aircraft.
“Dad said, ‘What is that?’ They say, ‘Colonel, we’re sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?’ ” Shoup’s daughter Terri Van Keuren told NPR.
Instead, Shoup got an idea.
“Dad looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, Dad had called the radio station and had said, ‘This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.’ ” Van Keuren said.
And so, NORAD’s Santa Tracker was born, with radio stations calling Shoup for updates throughout the evening and his airmen giving him a new nickname: “Santa Colonel.”
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After he retired, Shoup’s kids said he kept with him a reminder of the impact the tracker had on children.
“In his 90s, he would carry those letters around with him in a briefcase that had a lock on it like it was top-secret information,” Van Keuren said. “You know, he was an important guy, but this is the thing he’s known for.”
Shoup passed away in 2009 and the Santa Tracker celebrated 65 years on Christmas Eve 2020. Today, NORAD volunteers receive roughly 130,000 calls on Dec. 31 each year from inquiring young minds who want to know when they can expect Santa to arrive at their homes.