The Awesomeness of the NORAD Santa Tracker

I can get pretty lazy when it comes to holiday traditions. As long as I’ve got some family around me and a plate of food large enough to feed the entire San Diego Zoo, I’m a happy man. Christmas lights aren’t that big of a deal to me, and it seems like we change which day we open presents every year. This isn’t always fair to the kids because they love seeing the lights twinkle, and for them, there is still a magic associated with the season that isn’t just about family. For their sake, I make an effort to at least appear festive.

There is one Christmas tradition, however, that I love: the NORAD Santa Tracker. If you’ve never visited it before, it is really neat. Basically, you can go to the website, and you can watch Santa’s progress across the world as time goes by. As soon as any part of the world ticks over into Christmas Day, he springs into action and NORAD tracks him. You can watch him fly over Australia and make stops in Laos. He’ll drop off presents everywhere from Sweden to Chile.

Every Christmas Eve around dinner time, I’ll turn the computer on and go to the site. Our daughter absolutely loves it, and I’m hoping that our son will be old enough to enjoy it this year. We’ll just sit there and watch his progress across the globe. In addition to being fun for the kids, it’s also a good way to teach geography, not just for the kids but for myself as well. Every year, I’ll end up asking a question like, “Where is Trinidad?” It’s cool to find out.

It also helps to get the kids to sleep. They can see when Santa is getting near, so they know they better crash before he shows up. “Santa just hit the Eastern Seaboard. You better go put your pajamas on.” Our daughter gets excited and goes to get ready for bed.

It think that the absolute coolest thing about the Santa tracker is how it started. NORAD is a military command dedicated to tracking air movement over North America. During the Cold War, their primary concern was looking north over the arctic which is the closest distance between the U.S. and what used to be The Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, their focus has switched to other things.

This tradition started in 1955 when it was called the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). That year, a Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement gave out a phone number where kids could call Santa directly. Presumably, there would have been a person from the store answering the phone and pretending to be Santa Claus. Unfortunately, they published the wrong phone number in the advertisement. The number was actually to the CONAD commander’s hotline. Naturally, calls started streaming in on Christmas Eve from little kids wanting to talk to Santa. The Director of Operations that night was Colonel Harry Shoup.

Sometimes, I try to imagine how I would have reacted that night if I had the watch. I like to think that I would have done the same thing he did, but more likely, I would have politely said that they had the wrong number and then disconnected the phone. I would have had a job to do after all.

Fortunately, Colonel Shoup (1917-2009) was a much better person that me. He actually directed his watch team to start checking the radars for Santa’s movements. He then passed the information on to all of the kids that called in. What could possibly embody the Christmas spirit better than that? There was an Air Force colonel going out of his way to give kids an amazing experience when he was getting absolutely nothing in return. It is seriously one of my favorite stories of all time.

The tradition has lived on, and every year, NORAD tracks Santa. It’s mostly done by volunteers now, but the spirit remains the same, and the kids love it. You can read the official history here and the Wikipedia page here.

This Christmas Eve, if you want your kids to have a truly memorable experience, head on over to the NORAD Santa Tracker. I think that you’ll really enjoy it.

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