Tracking Santa an Accidental Cold-War Christmas Gift

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Ever wonder why NORAD tracks the whereabouts of Santa Claus every Christmas Eve? Turns out the internationally popular North American Aerospace Defense Command holiday tradition got started simply because of a careless cold war-era typo.

According to a Cnet report this week on the NORAD Tracks Santa program, it all began in 1955 when a local Sears store in NORAD’s (then CONAD) Colorado Springs headquarters location released a holiday ad with a phone number for children to call Santa Claus. Problem was, the number was a misprint–and turned out to be the “red phone” emergency number signaling enemy attack.

NORAD staff quickly clued into why a steady stream of kids were calling the number, and eventually began playing along and pretending to be St. Nick for the benefit of the youngster callers. From that point on, the military defense organization began providing a phone number for kids around the world to call and check on the Christmas-Eve status of Santa Claus. (You should read the full Cnet story, it’s truly heartwarming.)

That telephone hotline went online in 1998 and ever since, kids and kids-at-heart have been able to track Santa and his tiny reindeer over the Internet. This year, in addition to real-time Google Earth tracking and Youtube video flybys of the jolly old elf, the Norad Tracks Santa site includes a new Facebook page and a Twitter account.

According to Cnet, when NORAD staff are asked if there’s really a Santa Claus, they reply:

“We believe, based on historical data and 51 years of NORAD tracking information, that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world.”

Couldn’t have put it better, myself.

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