Tracking Santa for 60 years: A typo in an advertisement led to a new type of service for NORAD

Col. Harry Shoup, operations officer at NORAD on Dec. 24, 1955, answered a child’s wrong-number call and began the tradition of NORAD tracking Santa. Shoup died March 14, 2009, yet the tradition he started decades ago continues to bring holiday cheer to millions of children around the world. NORAD / Courtesy photo

The North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado is celebrating its 60th anniversary of tracking Santa’s yuletide journey.

The “NORAD Tracks Santa” website,, which launched Dec 1, features Santa’s North Pole Village, which includes a holiday countdown, games, activities, and more. The website is available in eight languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese.

Official NORAD Tracks Santa apps are also available in the Windows, Apple and Google Play stores, so parents and children can count down the days until Santa’s launch on their smart phones and tablets. Tracking opportunities are also offered on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+. Santa followers just need to type “@noradsanta” into each search engine to get started.

Also new this year, the website features the NORAD Headquarters in the North Pole Village, and highlights of the program over the past 60 years.

Starting at 12:01 a.m. MST on Dec. 24, website visitors can watch Santa make preparations for his flight. NORAD’s “Santa Cams” will stream videos on the website as Santa makes his way over various locations. Then, at 4 a.m. MST, trackers worldwide can speak with a live phone operator to inquire as to Santa’s whereabouts by dialing the toll-free number 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or by sending an email to

Any time on Dec. 24, Windows Phone users can ask Cortana for Santa’s location, and OnStar subscribers can press the OnStar button in their vehicles to locate Santa.

How it started
The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement advised children to call Santa but misprinted the telephone number.

Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put children through to the operations hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) in Colorado Springs.

The director of operations at the time was Col. Harry Shoup, USAF.

“This was the ’50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States,” Col. Shoup’s son, Rick, told StoryCorps, a national nonprofit that is recording stories for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The red phone rang and “then there was a small voice that just asked, ‘Is this Santa Claus?,’” Col. Shoup’s daughter, Pam Farrell, told StoryCorps.

The colonel was straight-laced and disciplined and was annoyed by the call, thinking it was a joke, StoryCorps reported. But then, the little voice started crying.

“And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” Terri Van Keuren, a daughter of Col. Shoup, told StoryCorps. “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.”

She told StoryCorps, “It got to be a big joke at the command center. You know, ‘The old man’s really flipped his lid this time. We’re answering Santa calls.’ ”

An annual holiday tradition was born.

In 1958, the governments of Canada and the United States created a binational air defense command for North America called the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, which then took on the tradition of tracking Santa.

Since that time, the men and women of NORAD and their family and friends have volunteered their time to personally respond to Christmas Eve phone calls and emails from children. In addition, NORAD now tracks Santa using the Internet.

Last year, millions of people who wanted to know Santa’s whereabouts visited the NORAD Tracks Santa website.

“I have the greatest admiration for Col. Shoup and found delight in his remarkable humor with taking the first-ever call regarding Santa’s whereabouts back in 1955,” Gen. Victor E. Renaurt Jr., USAF (ret.), said on the NORAD website.

Renaurt is a former commander of NORAD.

“[Col. Shoup’s] kind and thoughtful gesture will forever be a legacy at NORAD, and with the millions of people around the world who follow the NORAD Tracks Santa program each year. Truly, forever in the minds of millions, he will be fondly remembered as the ‘Santa Colonel’ and his legend will live on forever.”

Program contributors
NORAD credits the following contributors with helping to make the NORAD Tracks Santa program possible.

This year’s contributors include:
— The 21st Space Wing
— 140th Wing
— Acuity Scheduling
— Alaska NORAD Region
— America Forces Network (AFN)
— Analytical Graphics, Inc.
— Avaya
— BeMerry! Santa / Noerr Programs
— Bing®
— Canadian NORAD Region
— Chirpon
— The Citadel Mall
— Civil Air Patrol
— Christmas in the Park
— Colorado Springs Business Alliance
— Continental NORAD Region
— CradlePoint
— Defense Video & Imagery Distribution Systems
— DoD News
— The Elf on the Shelf
— Extended Stay America
— Federal Aviation Administration
— Getty Images
— Globelink Foreign Language Center
— Harris
— Hewlett Packard (HP)
— iLink-Systems
— Level 3 Communications
— Marine Toys for Tots Foundation
— Meshbox
— Microsoft®
— Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific
— National Tree Lighting Ceremony
— Naturally Santa’s Inc.
— Office Depot/Office Max
— OneRender
— OnStar
— PCI Broadband
— Portable North Pole/Ugroup Media
— Pueblo Riverwalk
— Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Colorado
— Save the Children
— Sears
— Space Foundation
— Spil Games
— SiriusXM®
— Strategic Air & Space Museum
— Unity
— U.S. Air Force Academy Band
— U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West
— U.S. Air Force Band of the West
— U.S. Air Force Band
— U.S. Air Force Heartland of America Band
— U.S. Army Ground Forces Band
— U.S. Band of MidAmerica
— U.S. Coast Guard Band
— U.S. Department of State Family Liaison Office
— U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
— U.S. Postal Service
— Verizon
— Visionbox
— West Point Band
— Windows Azure
— Xtomic