In 1955, Sears inadvertently kicked off what has become a yearly holiday tradition. The department store published an article for children that listed various local telephone numbers for directly reaching Santa Claus. One of the numbers they published, however, contained a typo, and instead of directing to one of the hired Sears agents, it connected to NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in Colorado (then known as the Continental Air Defense Command). Come Christmas Eve, Mental Floss describes what happened:
The red phone meant it was either the Pentagon or CONAD commander in chief General Earle Partridge on the other end, and their reason for calling would probably not be pleasant.
U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the center, rushed over to the phone and grabbed it.
“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup,” he barked.
Nothing but silence in response.
“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said.
“Sir? Can you read me alright?”
Finally, a soft voice on the other end.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” a little girl asked.
Shoup was stunned for a second. This must be a joke, he thought. He looked around the room, expecting to see his men laughing at their prank, but found stony, serious faces all around.
He realized that there was “some screwup on the phones,” and decided to play along.
“Yes, I am,” he answered. “Have you been a good little girl?"
All through the night, Shroup fielded calls from boys and girls around the country, playing along with their questions for Santa. He enjoyed his Father Christmas duties so much that he continued the tradition the next year, and the next. In 1958, he organized a Santa tracking program, Snopes.com writes, and recruited many of his colleagues and their family members to help report on Santa's progress and man the increasingly busy phone lines.
Today, NORAD continues its Santa-monitoring operations each December, and dedicates those efforts in memory of Colonel Shoup. (H1e died in 2009.) Throughout the year, NORAD's site counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Santa's Christmas flight begins. After Santa takes off, they track his progress around the world. The Atlantic reports on the state of operations today:
As of 2009, those volunteers were handling more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than 200 countries and territories. In 2011, Michelle Obama answered calls on behalf of
the North PoleNORAD.
The geolocation tradition, today, also continues with the help of social mediaand dedicated apps (iOS and Android!) and, in particular, the web—via noradsanta.org.
As they would with any jet fighter plane, NORAD reports on the logistics of Santa's sleigh, such as its climbing speed (one T, or Twinkle of an eye), its max speed (faster than starlight) and its propulsion (9 rp, or reindeer power). NORAD also provides a wealth of information for curious girls and boys about Santa and his cohort. Take, for example, the question of how Santa travels all over the world in just one short night:
NORAD intelligence reports indicate that Santa does not experience time the way we do. His trip seems to take 24 hours to us, but to Santa it might last days, weeks or even months. Santa would not want to rush the important job of delivering presents to children and spreading joy to everyone, so the only logical conclusion is that Santa somehow functions within his own time-space continuum.
As for the most important question of them all—"Is there a Santa Claus?"—NORAD's got that covered, too: "Mountains of historical data and more than 50 years of NORAD tracking information leads us to believe that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world."
More from Smithsonian.com: