For more than 50 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, has turned America’s most powerful radars skyward to track Santa Claus on his annual global toy—or lump of coal—delivery. What has become a holiday tradition for children and aviation geeks like myself did not begin because NORAD thought that Santa Claus posed a risk of nuclear armagedon at the height of the Cold War. It started because of a typo.

Left: The infamous Sears ad; Right: Colonel Harry Shoup

Back in 1955, a Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs placed an ad in the local newspaper that encouraged children to call and speak to Santa Claus, or just come by their local Sears store and speak to him in person. Unfortunately for Sears, and NORAD, the phone number published in the paper was off by one digit. The first child to dial the number, expecting to get Kris Kringle on the line, instead was connected US Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup on the Pentagon alert hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command, the predecessor to NORAD. At first, Col. Shoup was annoyed by the call, and thought that it was a prank. After all, the red hotline was only meant for top Pentagon brass in case of a nuclear crisis. But once he realized that the young caller was in earnest, Col. Shoup played along. His daughter recalled the incident:

And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke....So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, ‘May I talk to your mother?’ And the mother got on and said, ‘You haven’t seen the paper yet? There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’ Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus. (NPR)

Soon, the airmen were playing along too, and they began plotting Santa’s position on their big map and provided updates to young callers anxious to know when Santa would arrive. And NORAD has been playing along ever since. Shoup died in 2009, but his legacy lives on, and now children can track Santa Claus through the Internet with the official NORAD Santa Tracker, or with a smartphone app.

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