With Christmas only a week away, we all know that the big guy is double checking his list and preparing for his journey on Dec. 24th. Meanwhile, at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colorado, the men and women of the North American Aerospace Defense Command — also known as NORAD — are gearing up for their own 23-hour shift on Christmas Eve.
We sat down with John Cornelio, deputy director of public affairs for NORAD, to get the lowdown on the NORAD Tracks Santa program, which lets every boy and girl know exactly when Santa Claus is coming to town.
How did the NORAD Tracks Santa program begin?
Innocently enough, a local paper printed an ad from Sears Roebuck and Co. about how to call and talk to Santa. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at things — the number actually dialed into what was then the Continental Air Defense Command, which was the predecessor to NORAD.
How were those calls handled by the person who initially answered the phone?
An Air Force colonel, a guy named Harry Shoup, answered and he decided to basically play along. He looked at radars and reported where Santa was, and that started the tradition of CONAD — or NORAD now — tracking Santa on December 24th.
That first phone call was more than 60 years ago, how has Santa tracking technology changed since that time?
As far as what we use to track Santa, that really hasn’t changed a whole lot. We still use radars, satellites, and jet fighters … But the truth of the matter is, this is what we do 365 days a year, which is to track and monitor flying objects in the North American aerospace and around the world, so we simply use what we use every day to monitor Big Red One on Dec 24th.
Big Red One? Is that Santa’s official call sign?
Yes, it is!
So tracking technology is pretty much the same, but the adaptation of the internet must have made a difference, right?
The things that we use from a technology perspective to help get out the information has really changed over time. When I first got here 11 years ago, we weren’t doing it over the web or anything like that. Now we have a website, we use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, and maps. You name it, it’s all other ways for people to connect with us and to follow the journey of Santa.
How many people will visit the website on Christmas Eve?
Millions of folks will come to the website on the 24th, and thank goodness for our contributors like Microsoft, Verizon, and others, which allow us to be able to bring that information to everyone who wants to follow along.
Google’s Santa tracker has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Does their feed come from NORAD’s data?
They have a separate tracker. They have their ways of keeping track of him, but we are confident that as a military organization responsible for aerospace warning and control, that we are much more capable of executing this mission.
So then the NORAD Santa Tracker website is the absolute best resource for kids and parents who are following along?
The website is a great way to easily follow along, but I would tell you this, the heartbeat of the effort is the operation center that we have here at NORAD. We have more than 1,500 volunteers that come in, in two hour increments over the 23 hours and answer calls, and they will be able to look up on the map and tell you exactly where Santa is at a given moment. They will assist with maybe identifying the time that Santa is expected at that particular house. Modern technology is great, but it is always nice to talk to a person.
What number can people dial to get your updates?
As a civilian, especially a young child, it might be a little intimidating to call a military installation, what advice would you give to a child who is nervous about calling?
I would tell you that the person that they are talking to on the other end of the line believes as strongly as they do in the spirit of Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas. We are here to help them, we are here to pass along the information that we have.
Does NORAD work closely with Santa in the days leading up to Christmas?
Yes! We’ve had a full flight operations briefings with weather conditions and things where he sat down at a big table where — as god as my witness — the four star (general) was sitting next to him, so Santa was at the head of the table and the four star was on the side. I think I’ve only seen that a couple of times in more than 11 years.
Is the program only for kids, or can adults call too?
Parents definitely have used the program over the years to encourage their children to go to bed because we all know that Santa will not deliver presents if the child is awake, he will only deliver presents after they’ve gone to bed. We love especially when the kids call in, but if the parents want to help bridge that by getting the adult on the line and then passing the phone off to the kids, that’s great too.
What would you say to any children or adult who may be having a crisis of faith in regards to the magic of Santa Claus?
I think if a military organization is tracking Santa, then dang it, it’s got to be real.
This article was originally published on November 10, 2017.