For more than 60 years, North America’s most powerful radars have turned skyward on Christmas to track Santa Claus on his annual global toy—or lump of coal—delivery. But what has become a holiday tradition for children and aviation geeks alike did not begin because Santa Claus and his red suit posed a risk of nuclear armagedon at the height of the Cold War. It started because of a typo.
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. Unfortunately for Sears, the published number was off by one digit, and the first child who called expecting to be connected to jolly old Saint Nick was instead connected to Col. Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command, the US Department of Defense division responsible for protecting the US from nuclear attack. 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 the event 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.
Following the creation of NORAD in 1957, the tracking of Santa became an international effort, with America’s Canadian allies joining in the search for Kris Kringle. Colonel 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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