History of the Santa Tracker: How a Typo began Christmas tracking at NORAD


How did a typo in my local newspaper erroneously connect to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center, now at NORAD here in Colorado Springs, with requests for the flight location of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 1955 — and in years since?

And how can you check in on Santa this year?


NORAD Santa Tracker

In 1955, the Continental Air Defense Command home would eventually become NORAD in 1958. You’ve probably heard of NORAD in movies like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, WarGames, and ID-4. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint U.S./Canadian military installation that sits 1,600 feet deep inside Cheyenne Mountain here in Colorado Springs.



Command Center, NORAD. This is a declassified photo of the old one in Cheyenne Mountain.

When it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was intended to be able to handle a nuclear blast outside. Even in this day of MIRV nuclear missiles, NORAD maintains its reputation as a self-contained bunker and, for years, has been responsible for scanning the airspace above North America for missiles, aircraft, and near-space objects. I’ve visited the missile command center and seen the “big board” during operations, though the displays have only unclassified information when visitors look in.


A Phone Call to Santa

Col Shoup

Colonel Harry Shoup

During the Christmas holiday season in 1955, Sears ran an advertisement in the local Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph newspaper inviting kiddies to call in to talk with Santa. The ad had a typo of a single digit — or a child transposed two of the numbers — that took calls directly to the top-secret red crisis phone line of Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty that night. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon had that number.

The first call was from a young child, and Shoup was annoyed and thought it was a joke when he was asked to speak to Santa… until the little voice began to cry. Shoup entertained the child with “Ho ho ho’s” and asked to talk to the mother when he learned of the newspaper advertisement. He instructed his airmen staff to furnish intelligence on the location of Santa’s sleigh ride from the North Pole to several callers that night. According to his daughter, Shoup called the local radio station and said

“This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.”

Soon, the radio stations would call him hourly and ask, “Where’s Santa now?” and a tradition was born.

Another version of the story is that the call came in on November 30. Though initially unwilling, Shoup saw a P.R. opportunity and saw to it that the Press learned “CONAD, Army, Navy, and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.” This being the middle of the Cold War, the story went “viral,” as they say.


Santa Tracker Volunteers

norad tracks santa logo
Twelve hundred volunteers, including the President and First Lady, handle phone calls and emails each Christmas Eve, where there are over 100,000 calls and more than 12,000 emails.

People from local churches volunteer to take calls. Over nineteen million visitors from 200 countries check on Santa’s whereabouts via the website. With various web and mobile technologies, you can check in on Santa via NORAD at your choice of technology below. Tune in at midnight annually on December 23:

Over the years, Airmen have staffed the phone, continuing the tradition. A friend of mine tells his story on Quora here.

By the way, this is not your tax dollars at work. The program relies on volunteers and corporate sponsorship. It has continued to run through US government shutdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Tom G on December 16, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks Bill – Love it! so glad Shoup told the children a kind tale. My father, who was prone to the most extreme kinds of “Dad humor” would have told the children that the sleigh was taken out by a piece of space debris.

  2. BillStein on December 24, 2023 at 7:05 am

    I knew that if there was anyone who could find the original ad, it’d be you. From 1996-1999, I was privileged enough to answer the phones for the Santa tracker. What an absolute blast that was. My time at NORAD was arguably one of the best assignments the Air Force ever gave me.

    • billpetro on December 24, 2023 at 11:41 am


      Thank you for your service!


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