Tracking Santa: Despite Coronavirus, NORAD’s 65-Year Tradition Continues

Jeff Fitzmorris/U.S. Air Force
Air Force personnel work with volunteers to answer calls to NORAD’s Santa tracking hotline on Christmas Eve 2019. This year, the operation has been scaled back, but is still running, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christmas Eve can be rough. For kids eager for the next morning’s toyfest, it’s a day of frantic anticipation. For parents, wishing their kids would just settle down and let Saint Nick work his magic, bedtime can’t come soon enough.

For 65 years, help for parent and child alike has come from an unusual corner: the American and Canadian servicemembers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

The Command is tasked with keeping the skies safe over the United States and Canada. But there is one annual incursion into its airspace that it doesn’t just allow, but actively publicizes — the Christmas Eve flight of Santa Claus. Children around the world can call a hotline, or go online, to keep up as NORAD tracks Santa on his long journey.

Ellie Radway, an 8-year-old in Oregon, estimated that she usually checks the tracker at least 10 times on Christmas Eve.

“We see Santa Claus on the cell phone, flying through the air with all his reindeer and last time we saw him go to New York,” Ellie explained, before breaking into an excited chorus of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

That annual mission, NORAD Tracks Santa, is so well known, it rather overshadows the work the Command does the other 364 days of the year.

“As a matter of fact, there are some conversations I've had that people are surprised to find out that NORAD is an actual military organization,” said Maj. Cameron Hillier with the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

According to NORAD’s official history, it got into the Santa tracking business quite by accident. The whole thing started with a Sears ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1955 that included a phone number children could call to talk to Santa. But instead of getting the man in red, many kids accidentally dialed the operations center for NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command. 

“As you can imagine, for anyone who is in the operations center that night in 1955, getting children's phone calls to discuss wish lists was not exactly top of mind,” Hillier said. “They were looking more for the Soviet bomber threat coming over the top and dropping gravity nuclear bombs.”

Of course, lots of commanding officers would have just dashed all those children’s hopes. But the man on duty that night, Colonel Harry Shoup, didn’t. Instead, he told his crew to take the calls and reassure the children that Santa would be coming. 

These days, kids can follow Santa all sorts of ways — online, through an app, they can even ask Alexa. But the hotline remains the heart of the operation. 

“A lot of memories are built up in each and every one of those phone calls,” said Hillier.

In a normal year, NORAD has about 1,500 people answering phones — a mix of service members, their families, and volunteers. Most of those people live in Colorado Springs, but a few drive in from other states to be part of the tradition.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020, of course, is not a normal year. And like other military installations, Peterson Air Force Base, which houses NORAD, has become a bubble during the pandemic: off-base visitors are strictly limited. So this year, there will far fewer people answering the phones — just base personnel and their families. 

For kids who don’t get through to a live person, a recording will let them know where Santa is. And that’s very important for helping some families keep their traditions on track. In Minneapolis, the Agustin family always checks the tracker right before bedtime.

“We'll pull it up on the TV, or up on the phones, and we'll see where Santa is, run and get our pajamas and we'll hop up in bed,” 11-year-old Kate Agustin explained.

Maj. Hillier said encouraging kids to get to bed before Santa arrives is one reason a lot of families call in. He’ll be among those on base who will take a shift on the phones this Christmas Eve. Hilliard enjoys the enthusiasm and sense of wonder in the voices of the kids who call in but said that in his own home it’s a different story.

“My wife mentioned, ‘You know dad's working with Santa this year, so he's gonna, you know, track Santa.’ [My kids] couldn't care less,” he laughed.