The North American Aerospace Defense Command will be on high alert tonight, with radars scanning the sky, satellites searching and an army of volunteers keeping the public informed about a red-and-white clad airman zooming around the globe.
Standing watch will be people like retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jose Hernandez who started his annual Christmas Eve duty at Peterson Air Force Base in 2002, answering calls about Santa’s whereabouts while flanked by his young daughters.
Hernandez’s daughters are now adults: one a law school student, the other a civilian worker at NORAD like her dad. They still volunteer for the NORAD Tracks Santa program.
“It’s a great Christmas opportunity,” Hernandez said.
“It’s one of those beautiful traditions that we have around here.”
The Hernandez clan and over 1,000 other Santa trackers will be on hand at Peterson from 4 a.m. Monday until the wee hours of Christmas morning.
They’ll tell believers via phone and email when they should set out their milk and cookies and head to bed.
Many volunteers are service members and their military family members, but not all. In the past, local dignitaries, Olympians, and first lady Michelle Obama have answered calls.
The Santa-tracking tradition began in 1955 with NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, when Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, working in the operations center center one Christmas Eve, got an odd phone call.
He’d been on the lookout for Soviet bombers. The youthful caller wanted to know about Saint Nick.
Sears had put an advertisment in The Gazette that asked kids who wanted to talk to Santa to dial a certain number. That number was off by one digit.
It rang to Shoup’s desk, at the center of America’s Cold War defense.
Instead of saying “wrong number,” Shoup, according to NORAD’s official Santa tracking history, said, “I’ll check the radars.”
Fifty-seven years later, NORAD still informs children worldwide of Santa’s travels on Christmas Eve.
“There’s nothing like kids being able to call in and ask simple questions like, ‘Where’s Santa?’ and ‘When’s he going to be at my house?” said Lt. Commander William Lewis, a NORAD spokesman.
Last year, the center received 102,000 phone calls, up 20,000 from 2010, Lewis said.
The center’s website, which features “Santa cams,” received more than 1.38 million hits from users in 206 countries last year, he said.
Volunteers, some bilingual, make fond memories for children worldwide and help parents, too, Lewis said.
They usually tell children that Santa will be at their house shortly and remind them that Santa knows when they’re sleeping, and when they’re awake.
“A lot of times the phone will just go dead,” Lewis said. “Or you’ll hear them running off, and the parents are like, ‘Thank you so much. We couldn’t get them to go to bed.’”
NORAD PROTECTS ITS BRAND
The Colorado Springs command that protects the skies over the U.S. and Canada is also protecting the name of its famous Santa-tracking operation, the Associated Press reports.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command has trademarked NORAD Tracks Santa and licensed a private company to sell T-shirts and other gear. NORAD says the goal isn’t to make money but to keep profiteers from cashing in.
SANTA IS ON THE RADAR
To get a fix on Santa’s flight, you can surf to noradsanta.org on the Internet. To get a Santa tracker on the phone, call 556-5211 or 1-877-446-6723. You can also get an answer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.